900 Palestinian Prisoners to Gain Freedom (AP) By RAMIT PLUSHNICK-MASTI JERUSALEM, ISRAEL 02/03/05 9:18 AM)
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JERUSALEM - Israeli Cabinet ministers on Thursday approved the
release of 900 Palestinian prisoners and a military pullout from the
West Bank town of Jericho within days in overtures intended to
improve the climate ahead of next week´s Mideast summit.
The ministers also approved an earlier decision by the army chief to
halt the targeted killings of wanted Palestinian fugitives and agreed
to form a joint Israeli-Palestinian committee to decide what to do
Palestinians and Israelis both said Thursday they expect next week´s
summit in Egypt to produce a truce ending more than four years of
violence. A joint declaration of a cessation of violence is one of
the first requirements in the internationally backed "road map" peace
plan, which calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state this
"We are not talking about peace now, and not about the ´road map,´
but rather about phases that come before implementation of the ´road
map,´" Sharon said at Thursday´s meeting, according to participants.
Earlier in the day, both sides sounded optimistic about truce
"I hope that a cease-fire will be declared, a halt to all violent
acts," Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres told Israel Army Radio.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, returning to the West Bank after a
five-country trip, said he already has won an agreement from
militants to halt attacks, and he expects Israel to respond
"We have announced a cease-fire, and the Israelis should announce one
also," he said.
Sharon and Abbas on Wednesday accepted an Egyptian offer to attend a
regional summit next week, raising hopes for a breakthrough in
Mideast peace efforts. Jordan´s King Abdullah II will also attend.
Next Tuesday´s summit at Egypt´s Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik is
to be hosted by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The presence of Egypt and Jordan, both of which have long-standing
peace agreements with Israel, would signal firm Arab support for any
agreements Sharon and Abbas might reach.
The summit would mark the first Sharon-Abbas meeting since the
Palestinian leader won a Jan. 9 presidential election. It also will
be the first time Sharon and Mubarak meet.
In Thursday´s meeting, the Cabinet ministers approved the release of
500 prisoners immediately after the summit. An additional 400
prisoners will be freed within three months.
Speaking to reporters in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Abbas said
he wanted Palestinians who have served long terms to be included in
the first release.
Israel is holding an estimated 7,000 prisoners. In Thursday´s
meeting, the Israeli ministers said prisoners convicted in attacks on
Israelis would not be released.
The ministers also decided the army would pull out of the quiet
desert oasis of Jericho in the coming days, the first of five cities
to be vacated by the army in the next few weeks.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the ministers that Bethlehem,
Qalqiliya and Tulkarem would be handed over next, and that Ramallah,
the Palestinians´ center of government, would be last, participants
Israel slowed its planned troop pullback from the West Bank after
violence flared earlier this week following a lull. The Palestinians
want the towns handed over in one blow, but Israel wants to transfer
control one town at a time.
The participants in Thursday´s meeting said the military also would
remove some West Bank roadblocks and open the Karni cargo crossing
between Gaza and Israel. Karni, Gaza´s lifeline, was closed last
month after militants killed six Israelis.
Mofaz emphasized that all the measures are reversible, apparently
addressing concerns by hawkish ministers.
The ministers also approved the formation of a joint Israeli-
Palestinian committee to decide what to do with Palestinian fugitives.
The Palestinians want Israel to grant amnesty to several hundred
fugitives. Israeli security officials said Wednesday that Israel
would at least agree to stop its hunt for the wanted men, including
those responsible for planning or carrying out attacks on Israelis.
Israeli media focused Thursday on the fate of the No. 1 Hamas
fugitive - Mohammed Deif, whom Israel has tried to kill twice, the
last time in a 2002 airstrike. Deif is a master bombmaker Israel
accuses of being responsible for killing dozens of Israelis.
Later Thursday, Sharon aide Dov Weisglass and Palestinian negotiator
Saeb Erekat were to meet to finalize the summit´s agenda.
Erekat said that in addition to the terms of a cease-fire, the sides
would discuss the prisoner release, the Israeli military´s
redeployment in the West Bank, a provisional amnesty for Palestinian
fugitives and Israeli settlement activities.
A group of Palestinian police officers, meanwhile, left to begin
training in Egypt, one of Cairo´s moves to help rebuild Palestinian
security institutions and prepare them to take over areas of the Gaza
Strip set to be vacated by Israel this summer.
And while Palestinians and Israelis were looking for ways to bridge
gaps, Israel´s Supreme Court rejected a petition opposing
construction of a separation barrier in an area that would cut off
part of Bethlehem. The petition was brought by the Bethlehem
municipality and 21 other petitioners. (Copyright 2005 Associated
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