The Israeli government yesterday approved the release of some 200 Palestinian prisoners, out of around 11,000 prisoners Israel holds in its jails, as a goodwill gesture to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Three ministers of the religious Shas party and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz of ruling Kadima voted against the move. Sixteen ministers voted in favor.
Jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti and Secretary-General of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) Ahmed Sa’adat will not be among those freed.
The office of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert released a statement saying: “This is a gesture and a trust-building move aimed at bolstering the moderates in the Palestinian Authority and the peace process.”
Among the prisoners to be released are two Palestinians who were sentenced to long prison terms about 30 years ago. One of them actually killed Israelis and the other sent attackers. The names of the rest of the prisoners will be presented to an Israeli ministerial committee for approval.
“This is a gesture for Abu Mazen (Abbas) ahead of the month of Ramadan,” said a senior official at the prime minister’s office. Israel released 250 Palestinian on July 2007 as a gesture to Abbas.
A source at the prime minister’s office, citing Defense Ministry experts, said the risk of the freed prisoners with “blood on their hands,” an Israeli term for those who participated in military attacks resulting in Israeli fatalities, resuming military attacks “is very small.”
The exact number of the prisoners to be released will be determined today during a discussion of the ministerial committee.
The prisoners are expected to be released from jail by the end of the month, just before US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due to return to the region to assess the state of the final status talks.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who supported the release, said after the vote that “when Israel releases prisoners only for those who use force, it conveys a message that it gives in to pressure and that using force and kidnapping are the only ways to act against it. This is a message which conveys weakness. Those who only release Hamas prisoners bolster Hamas.”
Palestinian Minister of Prisoners Affairs Ashref Al-Ajrami said that the Palestinian Authority was not satisfied with the list. He said that although the release of any prisoner was welcome, the Israeli move was a unilateral one and did not serve Palestinian interests. “It does not meet the Palestinian criteria according to which all prisoners with long sentences — women, children as well as political leaders — should be released.”
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