(AFP) – Aug 18, 2008
JERUSALEM (AFP) — An Israeli ministerial commission on Monday approved the release next week of about 200 Palestinian prisoners, including at least two implicated in deadly attacks in Israel three decades ago.
Government spokesman Mark Regev said the prisoners were to be released "as a goodwill gesture toward (Palestinian) president Mahmud Abbas."
Prison authorities later the same day published a list of the 199 Palestinians, many of whom are serving long sentences for armed attacks against Israel.
Virtually all of them belong to groups linked to Fatah, the secular movement led by Abbas. The list does not include members of Hamas or Islamic Jihad, both of which Israel brands as terrorist organisations.
The full Israeli cabinet had voted on Sunday to free the prisoners in a move aimed at bolstering the slow-moving US-backed peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
The list includes two veteran prisoners implicated in deadly attacks on Israelis in the 1970s, a rare exception to Israel's general policy of not freeing those with "blood on their hands."
Israelis can appeal against the freeing of individual prisoners before the actual release takes place on August 25 and at least two members of the powerful security cabinet voiced their concern over some names on the list.
Among those to be released is Said al-Attaba, 56, who has been serving a life sentence since 1977 for the death of an Israeli woman in an attack.
Also on the list is Mohammed Ibrahim Abu Ali, known as "Abu Ali Yatta," who has been behind bars since 1979 for killing an Israeli student.
While serving a life sentence, Abu Ali Yatta of Fatah was elected to the Palestinian parliament in January 2006.
Interior Security Minister Avi Dichter made it clear he opposed the release of prisoners involved in deadly attacks, telling public radio: "Israel has crossed a red line by deciding to release the perpetrators of murders against Israelis."
Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz voiced similar objections.
Both ministers are candidates in the September Kadima party election to choose a successor to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who announced he would step down after the vote amid mounting pressure over allegations of graft against him.
But Housing Minister Zeev Boim insisted it was crucial to make a gesture to Abbas "rather than be intransigent, which would strengthen Palestinian extremists."
Israel first announced the decision to release the prisoners on August 6 following a face-to-face meeting between Olmert and Abbas, the latest in a series of discussions since they relaunched peace talks at a US-hosted conference in November.
A spokesman for Abbas on Sunday called the planned prisoner release a "step in the right direction," but said the Palestinians had hoped to see more freed.
The release next Monday could coincide with a visit by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced by the Palestinians, although there has not yet been any confirmation of the trip from Washington.
More than 11,000 Palestinians are currently behind bars in Israel, including 11 seriously ill people, according to the Palestinian Authority.
A number of them have been held without charge or trial under what Israel calls "administrative detention."
Defence for Children International said on Monday that 691 Palestinians are being held in administrative detention, including 13 who are under 18 years of age.
It also said that at any given point during 2007, between 310 and 416 Palestinian minors were being held in Israeli prisons and detention centres.
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