PA nixes `insulting´ prisoner release plan (HA´ARETZ NEWS) By Aluf Benn and Amos Harel 02/04/05)
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The Palestinians yesterday rejected an Israeli offer to release 900
prisoners as a gesture to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud
Abbas, calling the proposal "insulting."
The prisoner release, along with a package of other gestures and a
series of Israeli-Palestinian security understandings, had been
approved earlier in the day by the seven-member diplomatic cabinet,
following a stormy debate. The panel authorized the release of 900
Palestinian prisoners in two groups - 500 immediately and the rest in
another three months. However, the criteria for release are the same
as in previous prisoner releases, meaning that no one with "blood on
his hands" (i.e. who killed an Israeli) will be freed.
This restriction aroused the Palestinians´ ire at a meeting with
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon´s adviser, Dov Weisglass, later in the
"This is an insulting proposal," a Palestinian involved in the
meeting said. "You´re hurting Abu Mazen [i.e. Abbas] rather than
coming toward him. You need to release all 237 prisoners jailed
before the  Oslo Accords. That´s what´s important to us - not
the 900 you are proposing. You aren´t coordinating the names with us."
The Palestinians - Saeb Erekat, Mohammed Dahlan and Hassan Abu
Libdeh - said the proposal should be reconsidered. But the Israelis,
headed by Weisglass, said that this was the final offer: No
additional prisoners would be freed, and none with "blood on their
The crisis over the prisoner releases was largely predictable, since
this is an ideal time for the Palestinians to demand additional
Israeli concessions: U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives
Sunday, and a four-way summit between Sharon, Abbas, Egyptian
President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan is scheduled for
Tuesday. Both Rice and the summit participants are expected to press
Israel on its gestures.
It is still unclear whether Rice also will attend the summit: The
Palestinians want her there, but Israel is unenthusiastic.
In addition to the prisoner releases, the diplomatic cabinet approved
several other Israeli gestures yesterday.
First, Israel will gradually transfer five West Bank cities to
Palestinian control. Jericho will be handed over immediately,
followed by Bethlehem, Qalqilyah, Tul Karm and Ramallah. For now,
however, Israel will retain control over Hebron, Jenin and Nablus,
which are considered greater security risks.
In addition, a joint Israeli-Palestinian committee, which will begin
meeting next week, will be set up to "launder" Palestinians wanted by
Israel. In exchange for Israel not pursuing these men, they will have
to turn in their weapons to the PA, sign a pledge to refrain from
violence, and remain in their own cities, under PA supervision.
However, defense sources stressed, this is not an amnesty, and should
the fighting resume, Israel will renew its pursuit of these men.
Finally, Israel will allow the PA to build a seaport in Gaza, reopen
the Karni checkpoint between Israel and Gaza, and lift closures and
other movement restrictions. However, it will not allow the Dehaniyeh
Airport to reopen.
The main argument at the meeting was over the prisoner releases, and
participants were divided into two camps. One camp, which favored
generosity toward the Palestinians, included Israel Defense Forces
Chief of Staff Moshe Ya´alon, head of Military Intelligence Aharon
Ze´evi-Farkash and Amos Gilad, the head of the Defense Ministry´s
diplomatic-security unit, as well as Ministers Shaul Mofaz, Ehud
Olmert, Shimon Peres and Haim Ramon. The other, which advocated
caution, included Shin Bet security service chief Avi Dichter and
Ministers Silvan Shalom and Benjamin Netanyahu.
Farkash and Ya´alon argued that the prisoners are the most important
issue for the Palestinians, and therefore, recommended releasing
murderers whose crimes were committed before Oslo, who have served at
least 20 years, and who now support Abbas. Dichter objected
vehemently, saying this would impair the deterrent effect of arrests.
Peres charged that the "blood on their hands" criterion was outdated,
while Ramon proposed offering early release to murderers who were
anyway due to be freed by early next year. Netanyahu, however,
demanded that no murderers be released, and Sharon also opposed
freeing killers, though he hinted that Israel might make exceptions
for elderly or ill prisoners.
Shalom objected to releasing prisoners from Hamas, saying this would
make it easier for Europe to remove Hamas from its list of terrorist
Gilad, once known for his hardline positions, surprised the
participants by suggesting that 1,000 prisoners be released, instead
of the 500 originally proposed by the defense establishment. "Arafat
has gone, and we need to be as generous as possible," he
said. "There´s been a deep strategic change that we need to exploit,
and we must also prevent Israel from being accused in case of
Sharon agreed that Abbas´ election created an opportunity that Israel
must seize. "Prisoner releases and deals over wanted men are
unpleasant, but we need to decide whether we want to utilize this
opportunity, or not," he said. "If there´s a violation on their side,
our commitments will also be null and void."
In the end, a compromise was reached: No murderers would be released,
but the number of freed prisoners would be upped to 900.
Defense officials also told the cabinet that the Palestinians had
asked to include two senior wanted men on the joint committee dealing
with this issue. The Israelis vetoed one, Tawfik Tirawi, who heads
the General Intelligence Service in the West Bank, since he
has "blood on his hands." But they agreed to reexamine the case of
the other, Rashid Abu Shabak, who heads the Preventive Security
Service in Gaza, and will probably decide to accept him as an
interlocutor. (© Copyright 2005 Haaretz. 02/04/05)
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