Israel pledges to free 250 jailed Palestinians

By Isabel Kershner
International Herald Tribune

Sunday, July 8, 2007
JERUSALEM: Israel announced Sunday that it would release 250 Palestinian prisoners, a move intended to bolster the administration of President Mahmoud Abbas, a government spokesman said.

Israeli and Palestinian officials also said that discussions were under way for a meeting between Abbas and Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, possibly early next week, although the date and location had not been finalized.

Olmert had pledged to release prisoners belonging to Abbas’s Fatah faction at a summit meeting in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik on June 25. David Baker, a government spokesman, said the gesture was meant to “shore up” the Palestinian leader and his new emergency government, which rules from the West Bank, after the takeover of Gaza by Fatah’s rival, Hamas.

But a political adviser to Abbas, Nimr Hamad, said that the release of 250 prisoners was “a very, very limited step” and that Israel had rejected a Palestinian request to coordinate on which prisoners should be released.

Palestinian officials said about 10,500 Palestinians were being held in Israeli prisons, about half of whom have been charged. According to the Israeli prisons authority, there are about 10,000 Palestinian prisoners suspected of, or charged with, security offenses in the prisons. About 60 percent of them belong to Fatah, 30 percent to Hamas and 10 percent to other factions, a prisons authority spokesman said.

Israel released 500 Palestinian prisoners in February 2005, soon after Abbas was elected.

Other “goodwill gestures” offered to Abbas at Sharm el Sheik included a resumption of the transfer of Palestinian tax revenues that Israel collects on the Palestinians’ behalf, and that Israel has been withholding since Hamas came to power in early 2006; and a pledge to hold regular meetings between Olmert and Abbas. More than $100 million in tax money was transferred to the Palestinians last week.

Israeli government officials said that the list of prisoners to be released was “still being worked on,” but was nearly finalized. The first list presented by the Israeli security services was sent back for revision, according to Israeli media reports, because some of the candidates were very close to ending their prison terms anyway.

In line with a longstanding Israeli policy, Olmert said he would not release prisoners “with blood on their hands,” a reference to those who have been directly involved in terrorist attacks that killed Israelis.

Hamad said that he would like to see sick prisoners and women among those released, but that the Israelis were deciding unilaterally.

The early release of Palestinian security prisoners always arouses opposition in Israel. The cabinet approved the release by a majority of 18, with six voting against, Baker said. A seventh, Avigdor Lieberman of the rightist Yisrael Beitenu party, objected to the release in absentia.

Among those who voted against was Shaul Mofaz, a former defense minister who is now minister of transportation and a member of Olmert’s Kadima party. Mofaz said on Army Radio that he believed that in the end the Palestinian president would take the money and the prisoners and then join forces again with Hamas in a new unity government.

In the meantime, Palestinian lawyers who were involved in drafting the Palestinian Basic Law, or interim constitution, are disputing the legality of Abbas’s emergency government, Reuters reported.

Anis al-Qasem, who oversaw the writing of the Basic Law, and a fellow independent Palestinian constitutional lawyer, Eugene Cotran, told Reuters that Abbas had the power to dismiss Ismail Haniya, the sacked prime minister of the previous Hamas-led unity government.

But they said the law did not grant Abbas the power to appoint a new government without legislative approval nor the right to suspend articles of the Basic Law pertaining to the need for parliamentary approval, as he did last month.

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International Herald Tribune
Source URL: http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/07/08/news/mideast.php
Copyright © 2008 The International Herald Tribune | http://www.iht.com

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