JERUSALEM (Oct. 24)
Israeli officials are saying that their decision to release 760 Palestinians from jail and ease travel restrictions on residents of the administered territories will not threaten Israel’s security.
But security concerns were heightened by reports late Sunday that two Israeli soldiers had been abducted and killed by Muslim extremists in the Gaza Strip.
Few details about the attack were immediately available. But reports from Gaza said members of a terrorist unit of the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement, dressed up as Orthodox Jews and driving a vehicle with Israeli license plates, drove up to the Jewish settlement of Ganei Tal and managed to lure two soldiers aboard.
The terrorists then killed the soldiers, seized their M-16 rifles and dumped their bodies near the Rafah refugee camp.
The incident, which outraged settlers, came against the backdrop of continuing violence among competing Palestinian factions, which has been on the rise in the aftermath of the assassination last week of a leading member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s A1 Fatah faction.
Israel’s release of the Palestinian prisoners, the subject of negotiations last week at the Egyptian border town of Taba, was scheduled to begin Monday.
At the Taba talks, Israeli and PLO negotiators agreed that Palestinian prisoners will be released in stages throughout the five-year autonomy period called for in the self-rule accord both sides signed Sept. 13 in Washington.
The first prisoners to be released will be those who are sick, under the age of 18 or older than 50.
Police Minister Moshe Shahal told Israel Radio on Sunday that there was no need for public alarm, despite the counter-claims of government critics.
‘WE CERTAINLY HAVE LIMITS’
Shahal made his comments after attending an extensive briefing at Sunday’s weekly Cabinet session on the plan to release Palestinian prisoners.
“We certainly have limits on those who are going to be released,” he said. “If there is any danger of continuing terror acts, this is going to be one of the considerations whether to release them or not.”
“We have an agreement with the Palestinians that they are renouncing terror and acts of violence,” he continued. “We are talking about a peace process, and every person who’s being released is being verified (as to) what he’s going to do in the future” and “the seriousness of the acts he has done in the past which brought him to prison.”
According to Deputy Defense Minister Mordechai Gur, no prisoner convicted of murder would be released.
The government has also decided to ease travel restrictions imposed on Palestinians following the closure of the territories last March.
Restrictions will be lifted entirely for women and for those with jobs in Jerusalem, while men over 45 will be issued permits to enter on an individual basis.
The new rules regarding Palestinian movement within Israel were announced by Shahal last week.
Along with the prisoner release, the relaxation of travel restrictions is designed to provide the Palestinians with a sense that they are receiving tangible benefits from the self-rule accord.
‘SECRET SERVICE APPARATUS’ FORMED
The decision earlier this year to close off the territories had been very popular among Israelis, since the number of murders committed by Palestinians had dropped almost to zero after the restrictions went into effect.
But some 100,000 Palestinians were deprived of their jobs in Israel as a result of the travel restrictions. The result was severe economic dislocation.
On Sunday, Palestinian factions divided over the peace process clashed violently at the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza.
The fighting resulted in the shooting death of one woman and the injury of 15 people, according to Palestinian reports.
It was the second such clash in as many days.
The ongoing violence reportedly has led the PLO to deploy in Gaza what is being called a “secret service apparatus” to protect Palestinians in the wake of a series of assassinations of Fatah activists.
In Gaza, roughly 3,000 volunteers reportedly are being readied to serve the Fatah faction of the PLO in a “general mobilization to deal with the extreme emergency” following the Oct. 21 murder of Fatah activist Assad Saftawi.
Saftawi, a powerful grass-roots leader and a friend of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, was shot by two masked gunmen as he was picking his son up from school.
The volunteers would help protect Palestinians against the “enemies” of the peace process who seek to abort it, according to a Fatah memorandum distributed over the weekend.
Last Friday, thousands of mourners accompanied Saftawi’s coffin through the streets of Gaza, some shouting for vengeance. He was buried near two other recently slain Fatah activists and peace process supporters: Mohammed Abu Sha’aban and his aide, Maher Kehail.