Israel freeing 250 Palestinian prisoners as Mideast leaders meet

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Monday he intended to free 250 Palestinian prisoners in a goodwill gesture to help President Mahmoud Abbas.The two leaders held talks in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh, their first meeting since Islamist Hamas fighters seized the Gaza Strip this month and left Abbas and his secular forces in control of the larger West Bank territory.

Olmert told a joint news conference with Palestinian, Egyptian and Jordanian leaders he would work with “moderates” like Abbas against “terrorists” — a clear reference to Hamas fighters — to secure peace in the Middle East.

He said he was willing to resume a US-sponsored programme of two-weekly talks to push forward with efforts to found a Palestinian state, despite Hamas’ control of Gaza.

“I’m optimistic that, especially in these turbulent days… an opportunity has been created to seriously move forward with the regional peace process. I don’t plan to let this opportunity slip away,” said Olmert.

“As a gesture of goodwill towards the Palestinians, I today announced my intention to release [about] 250 prisoners who are members of Fateh who do not have blood on their hands, with their commitment not to involve themselves again in terror.” Olmert said Israel would make good on pledges, made after Abbas ditched Hamas, to end economic sanctions and pay over hundreds of millions of dollars in Palestinian tax revenues as well as to ease travel restrictions in the occupied West Bank.

Accusations

Abbas accused Hamas on Monday of staging a “bloody coup” in Gaza that had deeply wounded the Palestinian people.

Hamas has accused Abbas of a “coup” by dismissing the Hamas-led Palestinian government that held power before the Gaza takeover and of giving in to “Zionist blackmail”. The Arab leaders at the meeting asked Olmert in an open session to take steps to make life easier for Palestinians and also to start political negotiations on a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I look to… Prime Minister Olmert to start serious political negotiations, according to an agreed timeframe, with the aim of setting up an independent Palestinian state,” said Abbas.

 “My hand is stretched out to the Israeli people.” His short-term demands included an end to all work on Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory and on the wall or fence which Israel is building through the West Bank.

Israel should release prisoners, remove checkpoints and transfer frozen tax revenues to the Palestinians, he said.

Hamas, excluded from the meeting because the participants recognise only Abbas, said the leaders were chasing a mirage.

“[The summit] did not give our people anything new except some talk about some money, which was stolen from us,” said Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri.

Earlier on Monday, Hamas fighters in Gaza posted an audio tape of a captive Israeli soldier on the Internet. Sergeant Gilad Shalit was heard asking for medical treatment and urging Israel to free Palestinian prisoners.

A spokesman for the Hamas fighters said it was up to Israel to make a deal to free Shalit, a 20-year-old conscript.

He was seized a year ago to the day by fighters who tunnelled up to his border post and killed two other soldiers.

The release of the tape showed the obstacles to a settlement with 1.5 million Palestinians, one in three of the new state’s potential citizens, now living under Hamas rule.

“The only beneficiary of these summits is the Zionist enemy,” said Mushir Al Masri, a member of the Hamas majority in the now moribund Palestinian parliament.

“It is surprising that at a time when Abbas has shut the door on talks with Hamas he is running and begging for a meeting with Olmert.”

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