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Israeli Cabinet OKs Release of Militants (AP) By JILL LAWLESS JERUSALEM, ISRAEL 07/27/03 11:19 AM) Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A52968-2003Jul27.html
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JERUSALEM - Israel´s Cabinet voted Sunday to release up to 100 Islamic militants, a goodwill gesture toward the Palestinians ahead of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon´s trip to Washington this week.
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Ministers voted 14-9 to authorize the release, reversing government opposition to freeing members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, groups that have killed hundreds of Israelis in shootings and suicide bombings.
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Government spokesman Avi Pazner said the vote was intended to bolster Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who has been criticized by Palestinians for failing to get concessions from Israel during negotiations on the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.
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"Abu Mazen is our partner in the road map," Pazner said, referring to Abbas by his nickname. "We wanted to show our good will and so we agreed to the release. But we still stand firm in our refusal to release those who actively took part in terror attacks or kidnappings or murder."
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The prisoner issue is key to reinvigorating stalled peace moves.
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The Palestinians want Israel to release most of the estimated 7,700 Palestinian prisoners it holds. Israel has agreed to free a few hundred but had previously said these would not include members of Hamas or Islamic Jihad.
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Sharon hopes releasing dozens of inmates who are members of those groups will help ease pressure on him, and show Israel is committed to the peace plan.
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Sharon is due to leave for the United States later Sunday and is scheduled to meet with President Bush on Tuesday.
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On Friday - as Bush was meeting with Abbas at the White House - Israel announced several other steps that seemed designed to demonstrate it is sincere about the road map, which aims to end almost three years of violence and establish a Palestinian state by 2005.
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Those steps included plans to pull troops out of two more Palestinian cities and dismantle roadblocks in the West Bank. The first two roadblocks, both near Ramallah, were removed by Israeli army bulldozers on Sunday.
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A senior military officer said Sunday that in all, Israel was lifting 10 roadblocks - manned checkpoints as well as ditches - across the West Bank, and the main Jenin-Nablus road had been reopened.
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Israel also said it would permit thousands more Palestinians from the West Bank to travel to jobs in Israel.
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Abbas urged the United States to press Israel for more concessions, including freezing Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip - a stipulation of the road map that Israel has not carried out - and the dismantling of a security barrier being built near Israel´s dividing line with the West Bank.
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After the meeting, Bush expressed strong support for Abbas and said he would bring up Palestinian demands with Sharon. Bush criticized Israel´s security barrier - which in places will veer deep into the West Bank to bring Jewish settlements onto the "Israeli" side - and said settlements must end.
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Bush also said terrorism must be rooted out, an apparent nod to Sharon´s demand that the Palestinians move to disarm the militant groups. The road map says the Palestinians must dismantle "the infrastructure" of the groups; Abbas refuses to do that by force, preferring persuasion.
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Abbas´ trip was the first by a Palestinian leader to the Bush White House. Sharon´s will be his eighth since taking office in March 2001, and he hopes to shore up American sympathy for Israel´s security concerns.
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Under the road map, both sides are supposed to act in tandem, but progress has bogged down over who should make the next move.
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Israel has pulled troops out of parts of the Gaza Strip and from the West Bank town of Bethlehem but has been reluctant to do more until the Palestinians crack down on militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
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Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Yasser Arafat´s Fatah movement declared a unilateral cease-fire on June 29, bringing a sharp drop in violence after 33 months of fighting. But the militants threatened to call off the truce unless Israel acts, especially on the prisoner issue.
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The Cabinet-approved prisoner release falls far short of the mass release being demanding by the Palestinians. Hamas spokesman Abdel Aziz Rantisi said after the vote that Israel was not doing enough.
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"We want the release of all the prisoners," he said. "This is one of the conditions of the cease fire declared."
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He said Hamas was still committed to its cease-fire, "but our patience is limited."
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The West Bank towns to be handed over and the timing of the Israeli withdrawal are due to be discussed at a meeting between the Israeli defense minister and his Palestinian counterpart this week.
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The Palestinians would like one to be Ramallah, where Arafat has his headquarters, but Israel media reports have said the most likely candidates are Jericho, Qalqiliya and Tulkarem - all considered relatively quiet. (© 2003 The Associated Press 07/27/03)
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