900 Palestinian Prisoners to Gain Freedom (AP) By RAMIT PLUSHNICK-MASTI JERUSALEM, ISRAEL 02/03/05 11:48 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 about them.
The 900 prisoners represent about one-eighth of the total number of
prisoners Israel holds. The decision to withdraw only from quiet
Jericho falls short of expectations that ministers would approve the
evacuation of five West Bank towns, but followed the Israeli
government´s decision this week to slow the pullout after a brief
outbreak in violence.
Palestinians and Israelis both said Thursday they expect the 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 year.
"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," participants quoted Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as saying at
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 has already won an agreement from
militants to halt attacks and expects Israel to respond positively.
"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
the regional summit, raising hopes for a breakthrough in Mideast
In Thursday´s meeting, the Cabinet ministers approved the release of
500 prisoners immediately after the summit. An additional 400
prisoners are to be freed within three months. In all, an estimated
7,000 Palestinians are held in Israeli prisons.
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 round of the release.
In Thursday´s meeting, the Israeli ministers said prisoners
convicted in attacks on Israelis would not be freed.
The Jericho withdrawal, which could take place before the summit,
approval was largely window-dressing. Jericho has been quiet during
the fighting, and troops have moved into the town only a few times
to make arrests
Under the new arrangements, troops would need Palestinian approval
before entering the town, and Palestinian police would be allowed to
carry weapons, Israeli security sources said. Roadblocks around
Jericho are expected to remain in place, they added.
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
said. They said each pullout would need to be approved separately by
the security Cabinet.
Israel slowed its planned troop pullback from the West Bank after
violence flared this week. The Palestinians want the towns handed
over in one blow, but Israel wants to transfer control one town at a
The participants in Thursday´s meeting said the military would also
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.
A joint Israeli-Palestinian committee is to be set up to settle the
question of what to do with hundreds of Palestinian fugitives, the
Israel has killed dozens of wanted Palestinian men in targeted
assassinations that have elicited international criticism.
The Palestinians want Israel to grant amnesty to all 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.
The ministers also gave the go-ahead for construction to begin on a
seaport in Gaza, which would stimulate the Palestinian economy,
which has been hurt by the fighting.
Sharon aide Dov Weisglass and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat
were meeting Thursday to finalize the summit agenda.
A group of Palestinian police officers, meanwhile, left to begin
training in Egypt, one of Egypt´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.
And while Palestinians and Israelis were looking for ways to bridge
gaps, Israel´s Supreme Court rejected a petition opposing
construction of separation barrier in an area that would cut off
part of Bethlehem. The petition was brought by the Bethlehem
municipality and 21 other petitioners.
The army said it arrested a 16-year-old Palestinian youth carrying
explosives and a homemade gun and bullets at a checkpoint near
Nablus, in the West Bank. Witnesses said the youth had been bragging
to people at the checkpoint that he had an explosives belt.
(Copyright 2005 Associated Press. 02/03/05)
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