Cabinet OKs Additional Release of 400 Palestinian Prisoners

Amos Harel and Gideon Alon - Haaretz - May 29, 2005

The cabinet approved Sunday the release of some 400 Palestinian prisoners as a gesture of goodwill toward Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in keeping with previous agreements.

The cabinet approved the move by a 18 to 3 majority, with Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Health Minister Danny Naveh and Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz opposing the move.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told ministers at the opening of the weekly cabinet meeting that the release would bolster the moderate Palestinian leadership ahead of the upcoming elections.

"Israel has reproaches, and even serious reproaches on the implementation of the Sharm el-Sheikh agreements," Sharon said.

"But more than others, those who believe that the coming month's events could strengthen the hands of radical terror forces, surely understand the need to strengthen moderate parts in the Palestinian Authority and to abide by our commitments," Sharon said.

"The cabinet decision was intended to bolster Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and the moderate elements in the PA, and is in accordance with the understandings reached at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit regarding the additional 400 prisoners," said David Baker, an official in the Prime Minister's Office.

"Israel still insists that the PA take the necessary measures to fight terror and prevent further attacks against Israelis, and we are hoping these steps are taken at the earliest opportunity," Baker added.

But Netanyahu said the move would only encourage terrorists who view the release as a victory.

"I think the Palestinian committed themselves to act against terrorism and terror groups, and I think they have failed in both tasks," he said.

"I therefore see no reason, while the Israel Defense Forces chief Ya'alon and others are warning of the strengthening of Hamas and the PA's helplessness, I see no reason to give them a prize," he said.

This is the second phase of the Israeli undertaking to release 900 prisoners that was made at the Sharm el-Sheikh talks in February.

None of the prisoners to be freed have "blood on their hands," meaning they haven't murdered Israelis. However, Israel revoked an earlier requirement to release only those who have served more than two-thirds of their sentence in order to fill the 400 "quota."

The prisoners include activists in Islamic organizations, although most of them are members of the Fatah movement.

Palestinians immediately criticized the decision, saying Israel had broken its agreement to consult them on which prisoners to release.

Speaking at the cabinet meeting, Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin called the list of prisoners the 'lesser of all evils,' emphasizing that only a small minority of released prisoners return to violent activity.

The Palestinians demanded the release of 360 prisoners who have been in jail for more than a decade, but Israel refused to release prisoners who had been involved in violence, said Issa Karake, a member of a Palestinian committee that was to have negotiated the release with Israel.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said he asked Israel to resume handing over West Bank cities to Palestinian control immediately, as it also pledged to do as part of the February truce deal.

The list of prisoners was drawn up by a committee headed by Justice Ministry Director-General Aharon Abramovitz and consisting of representatives of the police, Prison Services, the Israel Defense Forces and Shin Bet Secret Services.

The IDF has recently recommended speeding up the prisoner release, explaining that Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas needs an Israeli gesture to prove to the Palestinians that stopping terror pays.

Senior officers recommended adding veteran prisoners who were involved in terrorist attacks to the list of released prisoners. The officers said Israel could release a number of Fatah activists with "blood on their hands" if they had been arrested before the 1993 Oslo agreements and if they had served a considerable part of their sentence.

The Shin Bet, however, vehemently objected, and ultimately its position prevailed. Barring last minute changes, the 400 prisoners will be released at the end of this week. In the past, the prisoners' release was delayed due to the objection of some ministers and petitions to the High Court of Justice.