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Israel May Free Jailed Islamic Militants (AP) By JOSEPH COLEMAN JERUSALEM, ISRAEL 07/18/03 3:01 PM) Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A11612-2003Jul18.html
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JERUSALEM - Israel is considering a limited release of jailed Islamic militants, Israeli officials said Friday, in a move that would partially satisfy a key Palestinian demand for maintaining the three- week Mideast cease-fire.
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Israel has already agreed to release a few hundred imprisoned Palestinians, but has refused to comply with a Palestinian call that it also free thousands of militants belonging to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, groups which have mounted suicide bombings and shootings that killed hundreds of Israelis.
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Those militant groups - together with Yasser Arafat´s Fatah movement - declared a temporary cease-fire on June 29, and the violence level has plunged.
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But the prisoners dispute - and Israel´s refusal to return more territory until the Palestinian Authority crack down on militants - has deadlocked efforts to implement the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.
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Moving forward with the road map - which calls for an end to almost three years of violence and the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005 - will be the focus of upcoming meetings by the two sides´ leaders with President Bush.
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On Friday, Israeli officials said the government was now considering an expansion of the categories of prisoners to be released to include some Islamic militants, but that no decisions had been made.
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Israel´s Haaretz newspaper reported that a list of 400 prisoners Israel is considering releasing includes up to 60 from Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
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"We are willing to examine this issue," said a senior official in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon´s office, speaking on condition of anonymity.
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The official said the releases could be considered by a special Cabinet committee as early as next week. Israeli media said they would be announced after Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas returns from a planned July 25 meeting with Bush.
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"What you see in the press may give an indication of the direction things are taking, but there´s nothing definite," said a second Sharon adviser, Zalman Shoval. He added that a decision would likely be made before Sharon meets with Bush in Washington on July 29.
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Shoval added that any militants released would be those held in detention without charge or trial, not those who´ve been convicted in terrorist attacks. Those convicted of less direct roles in violence could also be freed, he said.
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Israel has argued it would be dangerous to release many prisoners before the Palestinian Authority has disarmed militant groups, as stipulated in the road map. The Palestinians say they are reluctant to crack down on the militants for fear of a civil war, and say they will achieve the goal through persuasion.
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A change in Israel´s refusal to release militants could ease Palestinian demands and bolster street support for Abbas, who is accused by some of not being tough enough in talks with the Israelis.
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Hamas official Ismail Abu Shanab, however, rejected a limited release of militants.
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"The limit of the cease-fire is three months and we hope that the Israelis and the Palestinians reach an agreement to release all the Palestinian prisoners, and not just gestures like what the Israelis are doing now," Abu Shanab said.
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Sharon and Abbas are also expected to meet this weekend and discuss the prisoners. Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Amr said the meeting would be on Sunday, but Israeli officials would only say the meeting would be next week.
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Israel is holding more than 7,700 Palestinians, according to the latest figures from the International Committee of the Red Cross. Of those, nearly 1,000 are held without charges or trial on the grounds they pose a security risk.
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A newspaper poll published Friday showed 40 percent of Israelis supported releasing members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, while 51 percent were against. The survey in the Maariv newspaper questioned 600 adults and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
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In the West Bank on Friday, Israeli soldiers used explosives to blow up two homes belonging to the families of two Palestinians arrested this week for allegedly kidnapping an Israeli taxi driver.
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The driver was snatched from his cab at knifepoint last Friday and held for four days before Israeli commandos rescued him.
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Sporadic attacks have continued since the truce. On Friday, several gunshots hit a car driven by an Israeli in the northern West Bank, an army spokesman said. The driver was not injured. (Copyright 2002 Associated Press. 07/18/03)
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