Israel Okays Fatah Prisoner Release

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM – As part of an unrelenting efforts to back one Palestinian side against the other, the Israeli government approved on Sunday, July 8, the release of 250 prisoners of President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah.

"I think this is a worthy gesture to make…because we want to use any means that can reinforce moderate elements in the Palestinian Authority," Israeli Premier told the cabinet in broadcast remarks, reported Reuters.

A government official said the cabinet voted overwhelmingly in favor of a motion to release 250 Fatah prisoners.

None of the prisoners released will have "blood on their hands," meaning implication in attacks that have killed Israelis, Olmert told the cabinet.

Authorities are expected within days to draw up a final list of the names, which will have to be approved by the prime minister.

He rejected Saturday a preliminary list drawn up by the Shin Beth internal security agency and the justice ministry, as the sentences of several of the people on it were due to end soon anyway.

Olmert has ordered a new list drawn up, with prisoners on it having at least a third of their sentence left to serve.

They are all to be members of secular Fatah and "men who can reinforce the moderates among the Palestinians," said government spokeswoman Miri Eisin.

Once the list is approved, it could still take days before any prisoners are freed since Israel would allow 48 hours for the releases to be challenged in petitions to the Supreme Court.

Previous prisoner releases have raised opposition from groups representing families of Israelis harmed in Palestinian attacks.

Olmert had pledged to free the Fatah prisoners in a June 25 Sharm el-Sheikh summit with Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah II as part of a Western campaign to bolster Abbas against rival Hamas.

Israel currently holds more than 11,000 Palestinian prisoners, just over half of them having been convicted of an offence and more than 800 of them being held without charge.

Palestinians regard prisoners held by Israel as heroes of resistance against the decades-old occupation.

Abbas-Olmert Meeting

Abbas and Olmert could meet by the end of next week, officials said on Sunday.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Palestinian official told Agence France-Presse (AFP) the meeting could take place "by the end of next week."

A senior Israeli official said the two "have agreed in principle to meet next week, but a date has not yet been set."

The two leaders last met during the four-way Sharm summit.

The US and the EU have been prodding Olmert to nurture contacts with Abbas’s emergency government in the hope of resuming long-stalled peace talks.

Israel has sought to boost Abbas after Hamas overran security forces loyal to him in Gaza on June 15, assuming full control of the impoverished Gaza Strip.

Since then Abbas has sacked the Hamas-led national unity government, appointed an emergency government under West-favored economist Salam Fayyad and ruled out any talks with rival Hamas.

The two factions had formed a short-lived unity government after reaching a deal in February to replace the internationally boycotted Hamas cabinet that deposed Fatah in a shock 2006 election victory.

In an attempt to boost Abbas in his power struggle with Hamas, Israel transferred 118 million dollars of Palestinian tax funds it had frozen a year ago after Hamas was voted into power.

This has helped Abbas pay Palestinian civil servants full salaries for the first time in 17 months.

Egypt, which has recently been calling for a Fatah-Hamas dialogue to settle the crisis, has decided to send back to Gaza its high-level security delegation, which left last month after Hamas’s takeover.

"The delegation will head back to the Gaza Strip next week, with the aim of re-opening communication channels between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah leaders in the West Bank," Arab League Assistant Secretary General Mohammed Sobeih told Egypt’s Al-Gomhuria daily.

Sobeih, who is in charge of the Palestinian file, said the delegation will prepare the groundwork for the resumption of inter-Palestinian talks in Cairo.

"Egypt has received assurances from all the parties that they will cooperate with the delegation," Assistant Foreign Minister Hani Khalaaf told the daily.

"Preparations are underway for a meeting soon between both movements."

( + News Agencies)

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