Sharon ready to release Palestinian prisoners

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon signalled in a newspaper interview on Thursday that he is ready to release large numbers of Palestinian prisoners involved in deadly attacks—a key Palestinian demand and significant Israeli concession—if militants hold their fire during Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip this summer.

Sharon said Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas stressed during their meeting earlier this week that the release of long-serving prisoners is a top priority.

“He [Abbas] told me simply that it is a major problem,” Sharon told the Haaretz daily. In the past, Israel refused to release those involved in deadly attacks, though in recent days it has said it is willing to consider a few isolated cases.

The newspaper quoted Sharon as saying he told Abbas that if the Gaza withdrawal proceeds smoothly, he will release larger numbers of Palestinians involved in attacks.
Israel is concerned that militants will fire on Israeli troops and Jewish settlers during the withdrawal to portray it as a retreat under fire.

Sharon, who also faces opposition to his plan from Jewish settlers, received a boost on Thursday when a leader in a large Gaza settlement said half of the community’s families have agreed to leave.

Abbas has secured promises from the armed groups that they will observe a truce, and the Israeli and Palestinian leaders declared an end to hostilities at their summit.

However, the ceasefire remains fragile.

Early on Thursday, Hamas militants said they fired 36 mortar shells and 20 homemade rockets at the Jewish settlements of Neve Dekalim and Gedid in the Gaza Strip. The barrage caused no damages or injuries.

Hamas said on its website that it fired the mortars in retaliation for the deaths of two Palestinians on Wednesday. One, a Hamas activist, was killed while handling explosives. The second, apparently a civilian, was shot dead by Israeli troops as he walked near a Jewish settlement in southern Gaza.

In the West Bank, meanwhile, Israeli troops killed a suspected Palestinian car thief who sped through a roadblock near a Jewish settlement. The army said the man was driving a stolen vehicle.

Meeting called off

Thursday’s violence in Gaza prompted Israeli officials to call off a meeting with Palestinian negotiators on Thursday, a Palestinian official said. The talks were meant to follow up on this week’s summit in Egypt, where Sharon and Abbas called for an end to four years of fighting.

A senior Palestinian official accused the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah of being behind the Gaza barrage in an effort to derail Tuesday’s truce declaration.

“We know that orders have been issued from Lebanon for some parties to continue and not accept what happened” in Egypt, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Palestinian security officials have said Hezbollah is a major threat to the fragile truce, and Abbas dispatched an envoy to Lebanon this week to urge Hezbollah to step back.

Abbas was heading to Gaza on Thursday to try to cement the ceasefire in talks with militant leaders.

The leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Khaled Mashaal and Ramadan Shalah, have privately given their word to Egyptian mediators that a truce will be observed, Palestinian officials say, though in public, representatives of the militant groups have distanced themselves from Abbas’s truce declaration.

Local gunmen have said they will respond with violence to any perceived Israeli violations.

Abbas and Sharon are to meet again by Tuesday, at Sharon’s farm in southern Israel.

Crossing point opened

In another development on Thursday, Israel said it opened a main crossing point with the Gaza Strip on Thursday, though only a handful of Palestinians were able to use it because a bureaucratic snafu.

A military spokesperson said up to 1 000 Palestinian workers had been expected to pass through the Erez crossing, but the failure of Israeli employers to provide necessary paperwork confined the flow to about 20.

Before violence erupted four years ago, more than 100 000 Palestinians used to cross into Israel every day to work, providing a key source of income for poverty-stricken areas. Israel closed the gates as part of its measures to stop suicide bombers and other attackers, but the restrictions—including dozens of West Bank roadblocks—have decimated the Palestinian economy.

In the next three weeks, Israel is to hand over security control in the towns of Jericho, Tulkarem, Qalqiliya, Bethlehem and Ramallah. Abbas and Sharon agreed to the timetable on Tuesday.

Abbas said on Wednesday that the withdrawals from the Palestinian towns will be accompanied by the removal of roadblocks around them.

Meanwhile, Sharon received a boost for his Gaza withdrawal plan when a leader in the Nissanit settlement said 150 of the community’s 310 families have signed a declaration agreeing to relocate to Israel.

Nahum Haddad, a member of Nissanit’s town council, said the residents are prepared to leave after Parliament officially approves the evacuation. The legislation is expected to be passed by Parliament and Sharon’s Cabinet this month.

“We are against the evacuation but if it goes through then we want leave in an orderly way and stay together,” Haddad said. He said he expects the remaining families to sign on over the next several days.

Settler leaders have voiced strong opposition to the withdrawal plan, which will uproot 9 000 settlers from the Gaza Strip and four small West Bank settlements.

The Nissanit initiative is the latest sign of division within the settlers’ ranks. In December, all 20 families in the small settlement of Peat Sadeh agreed to resettle in Israel.

Unlike most of the Gaza Jewish settlements, Nissanit is politically moderate. Many of the residents are secular, and local support for hard-liners is weak.—Sapa-AP

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