Israel to release prisoners this week, Olmert tells Abbas

1107.jpgIsrael plans to release 250 Palestinian prisoners by the end of the week, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as the two leaders met in Jerusalem on Monday.The prisoners, the vast majority of them from Abbas’ Fateh Party, are due to be released on Friday following Israel’s pledge to free them as a goodwill gesture to Abbas following the bloody Gaza takeover by rival Hamas.

“The ministerial committee will convene tomorrow to go over the list of 250 prisoners which has been drawn up by the Israeli security services,” a senior Israeli official quoted Olmert as telling Abbas.

“And once it is approved, the prisoners will be released on Friday unless there are legal steps taken against the release,” he said.

Israel pledged to release the prisoners as a gesture to Abbas, one of several steps taken to bolster the moderate leader after security services loyal to him were overrun in Gaza by fighters from Islamist Hamas a month ago.

But, while welcoming the release, the Palestinians said the freeing of 250 prisoners out of the more than 11,000 currently held in Israeli jails was not enough.

“The president demanded that political leaders be included among them,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told reporters in Ramallah after the encounter, the sixth official meeting since Olmert took office in May 2006.

The prisoners include 11 minors, with the rest adults who have at least a year left to serve in their sentence, and all will have to sign a “commitment not to be involved in terror”, the Israeli official said.

Olmert insisted that Abbas, who has ruled out dialogue with Hamas in the wake of the bloody Gaza takeover, not reengage with the Islamists, saying this “means blowing up the current peace efforts”. Other recent Israeli steps have also included a pledge to take off wanted lists of nearly 190 fighters who had promised not to wage anti-Israel attacks and allowing veteran Palestinian nationalist leader Nayef Hawatmeh to enter the West Bank for the first time in 40 years.

Israel has also released some Palestinian custom duties that it has withheld for more than a year after Hamas came to power.

The Palestinians, however, have insisted that talks between the two sides should focus on long-term issues, like borders, instead of gestures.

“There are certain disagreements. The president wants his meetings with the Israeli prime minister to focus on political negotiations, the Arab initiative” and steps towards etablishing the Palestinians’ long-promised state, Erekat said.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad warned Israel it had to be willing to discuss substantive issues if the stalled Middle East peace process were to move ahead.

“To give confidence to the Palestinians in the peace process, you have to deal with long-term and short-term issues at the same time,” he said in an interview with the Haaretz newspaper, excerpts of which were published on Monday.

Fayyad said although recent gestures by Israel were important, it would be a “pathological” mistake to focus talks on these issues exclusively.

Israel’s main ally the United States welcomed the prisoner release ahead of a statement by President George W. Bush in which he outlined new economic and diplomatic support for the Palestinians.

Earlier White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters that “what the Israeli government is trying to do is the important business of working with President Abbas, really with the Palestinian government, in ways that are going to make it possible to work towards a two-state solution.”

But in Gaza, Hamas denounced meetings “supporting the occupation”.  “There is direct coordination between the presidency of the Palestinian Authority and the Zionist occupation,” Abu Obeida, spokesman for Hamas’  armed wing, told reporters.

“These meetings are absurd and we would like to see Abbas hold a dialogue with the Palestinians instead of meeting with the enemy.” In Qatar, exiled Hamas political chief Khaled Mishaal repeated the Islamist movement’s call for talks with Abbas and also denied Hamas had links with Al Qaeda after an Egyptian security official said the head of Al Qaeda in Egypt was reported to have fled the country for the Gaza Strip.

On Monday, Gaza fighters fired three rockets at the southern Israeli town of Sderot, one of which hit a house, causing no casualties, medical sources said.

The attack followed a relative lull in rocket fire since the June 15 Hamas takeover in Gaza.

Meanwhile an Israeli military court ordered the release of a former Palestinian education minister in the sacked Hamas government, his lawyer said.

It ordered that Nasseredin Shaer be freed after ruling he no longer held a ministerial position in the Hamas Cabinet Abbas sacked following the Islamist takeover.

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