Israelis OK release of 250 Palestinians

The Baltimore Sun

JERUSALEM -- The Israeli Cabinet approved yesterday the release of 250 Palestinian prisoners in what Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said was a move to strengthen Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the aftermath of Hamas' takeover of the Gaza Strip.

But the step was likely to be awkward for Abbas domestically because the prisoners to be freed are solely from his Fatah movement, exposing him to criticism that he is only looking after the interests of his own faction.

Also, the 22-country Arab League will send envoys on an important first mission to Israel this week to discuss a sweeping Arab peace initiative and how it might prop up Abbas, Israeli and Arab diplomats said yesterday.

Jordan's foreign ministry said the Jordanian and Egyptian foreign ministers would arrive in Jerusalem on Thursday for talks with Olmert and other Israeli officials, the Associated Press reported.

Olmert first announced the planned prisoner release last month at a summit meeting in Egypt with Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah II of Jordan in the wake of the Hamas takeover.

Speaking at the start of yesterday's Cabinet meeting, Olmert said, "We want to use every means that can strengthen moderate elements within the Palestinian Authority, to encourage them to take the path that we believe can create conditions for the start of meaningful discussions."

Last week, Israel transferred more than $100 million in frozen tax and customs revenues to a new government recently appointed by Abbas, in another gesture of support. The money, collected at ports and border crossings by Israel on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, was withheld after Hamas swept to power in parliamentary elections last year.

After Hamas' violent takeover of the Gaza Strip last month, Abbas formed an emergency government in the West Bank that has won broad international backing and a restoration of foreign aid that was suspended when Hamas came to power.

Israel holds about 10,000 Palestinian prisoners. The list of those to be released is yet to be finalized and is a source of contention.

Olmert said that there would be no release of prisoners "with blood on their hands" -- people involved in deadly attacks on Israelis.

Palestinian officials said they were disappointed that Israel is not considering freeing prominent or long-serving prisoners, such as Marwan Barghouti, a top Fatah leader who is serving life sentences after being convicted of involvement in five killings.

Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Abbas, said Israel rejected calls to convene a joint committee on prisoners, and he urged the Israelis to draw up the list of those to be freed in coordination with the Palestinians.

In Gaza, Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for Hamas, criticized Abbas for accepting a release that is limited to Fatah prisoners. "He should have refused any release unless it includes all Palestinian prisoners," Abu Zuhri said.

Hamas is demanding the release of a few hundred Palestinian prisoners from various factions in exchange for an Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who it seized in a cross-border raid more than a year ago.

Riad Malki, the information minister in the government appointed by Abbas, tried to parry Hamas' criticism. "If it was in our hands to choose," he said, "we would have chosen a group that more fairly represented the body of Palestinian prisoners, from all political groups."

Joel Greenberg writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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