JERUSALEM (Oct. 20)
Israel will release Palestinian prisoners in stages throughout the five-year interim autonomy period, rather than all at once, according to reports here.
The issue of the release of security prisoners topped the agenda at the talks for the implementation of Palestinian self-rule, which reconvened Wednesday in the Egyptian border town of Taba and which were scheduled to last two days.
The dimensions of the autonomous area around Jericho were also on the agenda.
The atmosphere in the Taba Hilton Hotel, the site of the negotiations, was described by participants as more serious than last week’s initial round.
Jewish settlers from the Jordan Valley drifted in two boats in the seas opposite the hotel to protest any agreement that would endanger their settlements.
Separate talks in Taba on the issue of security arrangements in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho — the two regions where Palestinian self-rule will initially go into effect — reportedly hit a snag Wednesday.
An Israeli proposal for maintaining security in the two regions received a cold response from the Palestinian delegation.
“The Palestinians listened to our conception on security arrangements in Gaza and Jericho and I cannot say that they have a smile on their lips,” Jacques Neriah, an Israeli delegate to the talks, told reporters.
Palestinian leaders have called for the release of all 12,000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons for security reasons.
The Palestinian negotiators have assigned a high priority to the prisoner-release issue because they say it is needed to demonstrate to the Palestinian people some immediate, positive results from the self-rule accord signed last month in Washington.
ATTEMPT TO DEMONSTRATE RESULTS
Israeli officials have been insisting that prisoners convicted of murdering Israelis will not be released.
Israeli sources estimate that no more than 2,000 of the prisoners were imprisoned for murder or attempted murder.
But Israel is reportedly prepared to release other prisoners — including administrative detainees, women and minors, as well as the elderly and sick — to demonstrate some immediate results from the accord.
Nabil Sha’ath, a senior adviser to Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, told Israel Television that he was optimistic about reaching an agreement.
“There is commitment on the two sides to proceed and the commitment has been made public,” he said.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin angrily quashed suggestions that there is a plan to release massive numbers of Palestinian prisoners immediately. He said such conclusions are premature.
An Israeli source in Taba told Israel Radio that the first stage of the prisoner-release plan would include 2,000 to 3,000 Palestinians detained for minor security crimes.
In an effort to build confidence among Palestinians for the implementation of the accord, Israel released its longest-held Palestinian prisoner on Tuesday.
Twenty-three years after Salim al-Zeri entered the gates of an Israeli jail, he was set free Tuesday to the cheers of hundreds of Palestinians who had turned out to greet him.
Zeri, 50, had been a commander in Arafat’s Al Fatah movement. He was jailed in 1970 after he attempted to infiltrate Israel with a terrorist unit from the sea. He received a life sentence.
Meanwhile, Victims of Arab Terror, an organization of families of murdered Israelis, has petitioned the High Court of Justice to block a massive release of Palestinian prisoners.
They claimed Wednesday that the court has deliberately delayed responding to the petition, a charge that a court spokesman has denied.
Shifra Hoffman, the group’s founder, said the prisoners constituted a “clear and present danger” to Israeli society and that the petition demanded immediate action.