(AFP) – Aug 24, 2008
JERUSALEM (AFP) — Israel was to free 199 Palestinian prisoners Monday in a goodwill gesture to president Mahmud Abbas as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was due in the region to give a push to US-backed peace talks.
The release was scheduled for 9:30 am (0630 GMT), just hours before Rice's arrival on her 18th visit in two years.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert proposed the release earlier this month, saying that it would bolster the Western-backed Abbas, whom he has met on a roughly fortnightly basis since the talks were formally relaunched in November.
Prison authorities said on Sunday that the prisoners had undergone routine medical examinations, met with Red Cross representatives and would be freed at the Beituniya checkpoint near the West Bank's political capital of Ramallah.
The prisoners will then be taken to Abbas's presidential compound for an official celebration, according to Ashraf al-Ajrami, the Palestinian minister of prisoner affairs.
"Our reception of the prisoners tomorrow will be like a national wedding," Ajrami told reporters in Ramallah on Sunday.
Those due to be released include two of the longest-serving Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, for whom Israel has made a rare exception to its policy of not freeing those implicated in deadly attacks on its citizens.
Said al-Attaba, 56, has been serving a life sentence since 1977 for killing an Israeli woman, and Mohammed Ibrahim Abu Ali, 51, known as "Abu Ali Yatta," has been behind bars since 1979 for killing an Israeli reservist.
Abu Ali, a member of Abbas's Fatah party, was elected to parliament in 2006.
Ajrami said the decision to release the two men was a "small step opening the door to bigger ones" and a sign that Israel was easing its criteria for releasing some of the more than 10,000 Palestinians held in Israeli jails.
"Releasing these kinds of prisoners indicates that the criteria Israel used in the past will not endure. This clears the way for other prisoners," he said.
The release will coincide with the arrival of Rice in a new bid to push the two sides forward in their stated effort to reach a peace agreement by 2009.
The two sides have made little tangible progress on resolving the core issues of the conflict, including final borders, the status of Jerusalem, and the fate of 4.5 million UN-registered Palestinian refugees.
The process has been marred by violence in and around the Gaza Strip, where the Islamist Hamas movement seized power in June 2007, and Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank including annexed east Jerusalem.
Rice was last in Israel in mid-June, when she strongly criticised the expansion of the Jewish settlements, saying they undermined the peace process.
The latest visit will be Rice's first to the region since Olmert announced on July 30 that he will be resigning from his post to battle corruption allegations after his centrist Kadima party chooses a new leader in September.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who has been leading Israel's negotiating team with the Palestinians, is a front-runner to replace him, as is Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz, a hawkish former general.
But Livni on Thursday played down the likelihood of meeting the goal set at an a US-hosted international peace conference last November of getting a peace deal this year.
She warned that "premature" efforts to bridge the gaps between the two sides could lead to "clashes."
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