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Jailed Palestinians Seek Driver´s Release (AP) By JILL LAWLESS JERUSALEM, ISRAEL 07/14/03 8:10 AM) Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A52880-2003Jul14.html
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JERUSALEM - Representatives of Palestinian prisoners jailed by Israel called for the release of an Israeli taxi driver feared kidnapped by militants, a gesture that could help shore up fragile peace moves.
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A top leader of the Islamic militant group Hamas, however, warned Monday that any attempts to disarm it would bring a return to violent attacks on Israelis.
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Two weeks of relative quiet have brought hopes that the 33-month Palestinian uprising may be winding down, but efforts to implement the U.S.-backed "road map" to peace and Palestinian statehood by 2005 are mired in disagreements.
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In London, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was expected to meet with Prime Minister Tony Blair and senior officials and urge Britain to sever ties with Yasser Arafat. Israel accuses Arafat of fomenting terrorism and impeding the efforts of his moderate premier, Mahmoud Abbas, to end the violence.
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"Arafat should be removed from any position of influence," Sharon told the Fox News Network, blaming the longtime Palestinian leader for the nearly three years of Mideast bloodshed.
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Violence has decreased markedly since the main Palestinian militant groups declared a unilateral cease-fire on June 29, and Israel scaled back military action. But the militants warn the truce will collapse if Israel does not release some 7,000 Palestinian prisoners; Israel has agreed to free only several hundred.
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Israel officials have suggested that they are looking for ways to ease the prisoner crisis, and the statement by the prisoners was viewed as a gesture of good faith.
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Orit Messer-Harel, spokeswoman for Israel´s prison service, said the statement was released on Sunday by prisoner representative committees at the Ashkelon and Shatah prisons, which together contain hundreds of Palestinian inmates.
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"We allowed the dissemination of this call because it helps peace," she said.
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The statement calls for the release of 61-year-old Eliyahu Goral, whose cab was found abandoned and idling in an Arab section of Jerusalem on Friday.
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No one has claimed responsibility for abducting Goral, whose cab was found abandoned and idling in an Arab section of Jerusalem Friday. Israeli officials fear he was kidnapped by militants hoping for a prisoner exchange. Palestinian security forces are helping Israeli troops search for the man.
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The prisoners´ statement does not confirm Goral was kidnapped.
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Palestinian Minister for Prisoner Affairs Hisham Abdal Raziq said the statement "confirms the prisoners´ belief that such actions (as kidnapping) only hurt the issue of releasing prisoners," and also "confirms the firm commitment that prisoners have to abiding by the cease-fire agreement."
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Since the truce was declared, Israel pulled troops out of parts of Gaza and the West Bank town of Bethlehem. But it refuses to hand over more towns until the Palestinian Authority disarms militant groups - something Abbas is extremely reluctant to do for fear of sparking a civil war.
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However, recent days have seen some signs of a nascent weapons- collection effort.
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In Gaza, Palestinian security forces have confiscated illegal weapons and arrested several people in possession of unlicensed guns, a Palestinian security source said. The source said no particular militant group was targeted.
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Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a top Hamas leader, warned Monday that attempts to disarm the group would scupper the truce.
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"This is just a warning message to the Palestinian Authority that disarming the Palestinian fighters will lead to the end of the initiative declared," he said in Gaza.
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On Sunday, Hamas and Islamic Jihad issued a joint statement which also warned that attempts to disarm the militants "might lead us to think seriously about going back on our initiative to suspend military operations."
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The deadlock has sparked growing criticism of Abbas also from within the Fatah movement, which he has led together with Arafat for decades. Last week Abbas threatened to resign as premier unless he receives more support.
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Israel puts much of the blame for problems with the peace process on Arafat, who reluctantly appointed Abbas as premier in April, bending to intense international pressure to share power.
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The United States backs Israel´s attempt to boycott the embattled Palestinian leader, but European countries retain some ties with Arafat. A delegation of British lawmakers visited his Ramallah headquarters on the weekend, and Russian Foreign Minister Rigor Ivan met with him on Sunday, urging Israel to restore Arafat´s freedom of movement.
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Arafat has been confined to his office building in the West Bank town of Ramallah for more than a year and a half, watching as Israeli forces knocked down almost all the buildings in the compound. Israel´s policy now is that Arafat is free to leave, but Israel will not guarantee that he would be allowed to return. (© 2003 The Associated Press 07/14/03)
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