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Palestinian Prisoner Kin Demand Releases (AP) By LARA SUKHTIAN BEIT RIMA, West Bank 07/29/03 4:49 PM) Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A63208-2003Jul29.html
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BEIT RIMA, West Bank - Rihab Suleiman cries outside her tiny grocery store on the West Bank as she recounts the humiliation of visiting her three sons in an Israeli jail.
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As she talks, Suleiman echoes a main Palestinian condition for progress on the U.S.-backed peace plan: "There will be no peace unless all the prisoners are released," she said.
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Israel holds, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, about 7,860 Palestinians - most accused of direct or indirect involvement in terrorism.
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The "road map" peace plan does not mention the release of prisoners, but it has become an emotional Palestinian demand in the latest round of Mideast peacemaking.
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Israel has agreed to release several hundred prisoners, including 200 members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad - Islamic militant groups that have killed hundreds of Israelis with suicide bombings.
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But Israel refuses to free anyone directly involved in deadly attacks and the government is reluctant to release any potentially violent prisoners while Palestinian militant groups remain armed.
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Israel has found a receptive audience for that position in President Bush, who has pushed both sides to make progress on a peace plan that envisions a Palestinian state by 2005.
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After his meeting Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Bush urged the Israelis to free prisoners who "won´t create the conditions of terror" and aren´t likely of returning to violence.
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"It doesn´t make any sense to release somebody who´s going to get out of prison and start killing," Bush said.
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Palestinians, however, want a mass release. Militant groups have threatened to abandon the temporary cease-fire they declared on June 29 unless Israel releases all the inmates. The Palestinian Authority says that at least 3,000 of the prisoners pose no security risk to Israel.
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"They don´t have to release them all at once," Palestinian lawmaker Saeb Erekat said. "But we will have a Palestinian state scheduled by 2005 and by then there should not remain even one prisoner in jail."
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Aside from security concerns, the two sides seem to be divided by a psychological gulf on the prisoner issue.
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To Israelis, the prisoners - or at least most of them - are terrorists who must be punished for justice to be served and for their colleagues to be deterred.
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"Terrorists with blood on their hands would not be freed," Sharon said Tuesday.
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But in Palestinian hamlets like Beit Rima - where townspeople say about 45 residents are in jail - the prisoners are seen as freedom fighters whose release should be a part of any peace process.
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The holding of the prisoners is also seen by Palestinians as another humiliation at the hands of the Israelis.
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Suleiman´s family is typical. Three of her sons - who she said were involved in fighting Israel - were arrested in the fall of 2001. They were, she said, "intefadeh activists" but not members of militant groups. The Israeli military would not say Tuesday why the men were held.
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A fourth son was a gunman shot and killed by Israeli troops in December 2001.
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"He was first shot in the leg and then he continued to fire back at the Israelis," she said proudly. "He used every last bullet from every last gun."
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Radi Jarrai, deputy minister for prisoner affairs in the Palestinian Authority, said that about 45 percent of the prisoners are affiliated with Yasser Arafat´s Fatah movement, most through the Al Aqsa Brigades militant group, and a similar proportion belonged to Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
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Some prisoners are also members of the Palestinian security services.
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The road map skirts the issue, but Palestinians says the sides should resume cooperation based on a 2001 plan worked out by CIA Director George Tenet that says Israel should "release all Palestinians arrested in security sweeps who have no association with terrorist activities."
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Audeh Abed Barghouti, an unemployed factory worker in Beit Rima, has both his son and his daughter´s fiance in an Israeli jail. He has relatives active in the Hamas militant group, and he says the Israeli army closely watches his family.
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Barghouti´s daughter, Reem, said her fiance was arrested in July 2000, accused of being a Hamas activist. She worried that the potential Palestinian state would be hindered because so many of its young men remain in jail.
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"If we ever want to achieve anything, if we ever want to be able to defend our land, it is these people that can do it," she said. (© 2003 The Associated Press 07/29/03)
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