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Israel Prepares to Free Prisoners As Unrest in Territories Continues

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At a time when unrest is continuing in the administered territories, Israeli authorities are stepping up preparations for the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners as part of their negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

In a stark reminder that there is still much ground to cover on the road to peace, there were clashes between Israeli settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank town of Hebron over the weekend following the stabbing of an Israeli teacher on Friday by at least two attackers.

Also during the weekend, an activist in PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat’s Al Fatah faction was killed in the Gaza Strip.

Against this backdrop of violence, Israel is preparing a massive release of Palestinian security prisoners as a confidence-building measure meant to demonstrate some immediate positive results of the Israeli-PLO self-rule accord signed last month.

According to a report Sunday in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot, Israel is planning an initial release of some 4,000 prisoners who have been sentenced up to five years in jail.

The newspaper reported that women, administrative detainees, minors as well as elderly and sick prisoners will be included in the first release of prisoners.

But Israel has no plans for the release of prisoners who have killed Israeli citizens or who are likely to become involved in future acts of violence against Jews.

The subject of the prisoner release was expected to be the focus of the next round of talks with the Palestinians scheduled for Wednesday in the Sinai border town of Taba.

The head of the Palestinian delegation to the Taba talks has meanwhile issued comments likely to stir the passions of Israeli settlers who fear that the self-rule accord will force them from their homes.

“The settlers are not welcome in Gaza, and the Israelis know that,” Nabil Sha’ath, a senior adviser to Arafat, was quoted as saying. “They must leave. We will have to accept them now for a period of two years, but then they must go.

“We want a settlement accord similar to the Egyptian-Israeli model,” he said. “The Israelis evacuated their settlements in Sinai as part of the peace agreement, but Israelis still come as tourists.”

He said that the Israeli-PLO accord would lead to a gradual Palestinian takeover of authority in the West Bank and Gaza, adding that “the Israelis understand that this is the beginning of a Palestinian state.”

ISRAELI TEACHER WOUNDED IN HEBRON

Fears surrounding the outcome of the Israeli-PLO talks provided a backdrop when Palestinians and Jewish settlers clashed in Hebron late Friday and Saturday.

The confrontations followed the stabbing of Baruch Ben-Ya’acov, in Hebron on Friday evening.

Ben-Ya’acov, 31, an English teacher and the father of three, was stabbed in the neck from behind by at least two attackers as he was walking alone in the street.

Suffering from light wounds, he was rushed to the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.

The Damascus-based Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which opposes the Israeli-PLO accord, claimed responsibility for the attack.

In response to the attack, scores of settlers gathered to demand that Israeli security officials clamp a curfew on Hebron and that they impose tougher security measures within the city.

The gathering soon turned into a riot, with settlers turning over fruit stands in the local wholesale market and smashing windshields of cars owned by Arabs.

Local Arab residents responded by throwing stones.

Israeli soldiers interfered and imposed a curfew in the area.

But the riots resumed Saturday. A large contingent of the Israel Defense Force was needed to separate Israelis and Palestinians fighting in the narrow alleys of Hebron.

Soldiers had to fire warning shots in the air to break up the crowds.

In the Gaza Strip, the atmosphere of violence continued when a senior activist in Arafat’s Fatah faction was shot and killed over the weekend by masked Palestinians.

The victim was Maher Ikhail, 35, a barber living in Gaza City.

Arab sources said Sunday that the assailants drove up to his shop, called him outside and then shot him twice in the head.

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