Prisoner Release Becomes Issue Threatening Mideast Cease-fire

The issue of prisoner releases has leapt to the front burner of the Palestinian cease- fire.

On Sunday, the Israeli government approved criteria for releasing Palestinian prisoners, but Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said no Palestinian prisoners who have murdered Israelis would be released, reports said.

But Palestinian groups called the measure insufficient, and said the week-old cease-fire could be in jeopardy if all Palestinian prisoners are not released.

Even as the spotlight was thrown on the possible releases, other issues such as further Israeli withdrawals

from the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the progress made in curbing violence during the past week were also discussed.

At Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, the measure passed in its third vote by a 13-8 count. The ministers agreed to the resolution after it was amended to include the creation of a ministerial committee on prisoner releases, and after a clause was added stressing that the release is dependent upon Palestinian fulfillment of the commitment to fight terrorism.

During the Cabinet meeting, families of terror victims demonstrated outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem against prisoner releases.

The government decision is expected to pave the way for the release soon of some 400 Palestinian prisoners — about 250 administrative detainees and 135 Palestinians held for criminal offenses, reports said.

Israel is believed to currently hold about 4,500 Palestinians in detention, the reports said.

The Palestinian Authority’s information minister, Nabil Amr, said Palestinians had expected a larger release.

“This is an insufficient step,” he said, adding that the United States would be called on to pressure Israel to free all prisoners.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad went further. Hamas demanded that Israel release all its members, while Islamic Jihad called the decision a Zionist maneuver, raising questions over whether the decision would affect the group’s declared cease-fire on attacks against Israel.

At Sunday’s meeting between Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and the Palestinian security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, the latter reportedly asked that Israel drop the criteria it established for the release of the prisoners, Army Radio reported.

The Palestinians also reportedly demanded that the Israeli military redeploy from three more Palestinian cities, including Ramallah, and lift the blockade that still remains in effect around Bethlehem, the report said.

Mofaz, one of the outspoken critics of the “road map” peace plan, said there have been fewer terror alerts since Israel handed over security responsibility to the Palestinians in the West Bank town of Bethlehem and parts of the Gaza Strip.

He also said after the talks that he came away with the impression that the Palestinians want to renew the peace process, Israel Radio reported.

But Mofaz said Palestinian leaders would be judged on their actions, not their words.

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