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Israel Releases Palestinian Prisoners As Both Sides Make Goodwill Gestures

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Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are building on their cease-fire pledge. Topping off a series of goodwill gestures, Sharon’s Cabinet approved the release of 500 Palestinian security prisoners on Sunday– although the terms of the release include a grace period during which Israeli terror victims can lodge appeals.

None of the prisoners in this group have been directly involved in murderous attacks on Israelis.

“This is not an easy step, but this gesture possibly could help the Palestinian Authority consolidate its rule and boost trust between the two sides,” Sharon told fellow ministers.

Another 400 prisoners are to go free later this month, subject to negotiations in a joint Israeli-Palestinian committee over the final release roster.

And in a move that surprised even Palestinians, Israel said it would allow 39 terrorists who it deported to the Gaza Strip or Europe after they holed up in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity in 2002 to return to the West Bank.

For his part, Abbas has made good on a pledge to step up security in territories the Palestinians want for a state — although this falls short of the counterterrorist crackdown called for in the U.S.-led peace “road map.”

Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which refused to submit to the truce Abbas declared at last Tuesday’s summit with Sharon in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik, have instead promised “calm.”

After Saturday talks with Abbas, the terrorist groups said they reserved the right to attack Israel in response to its military actions but would refrain from doing so immediately, in a bid to bolster the new Palestinian Authority president.

Abbas has won Israeli and U.S. plaudits for his efforts to stop armed Palestinian violence, especially as implementation of Sharon’s plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip looms.

But many Israelis fear that failure to disarm Palestinian terrorist groups would be a recipe for renewed bloodshed, either during the withdrawal plan or after.

Rancor among settlers slated for evacuation from Gaza and the northern West Bank has deepened to the point where some Israelis fear a return to the domestic discord that characterized the aftermath of the Oslo interim peace accords in the mid-1990s.

Security sources said Sunday that at least 80 civil servants, including at least two members of Sharon’s Cabinet, had received death threats over their support for the pullbacks.

“I am shocked at this lawlessness. We have to carry out real steps,” Sharon was quoted as saying after Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit revealed a letter that contained threats against the lives of his wife and children.

In what could signal tougher legal measures promised by Israel’s attorney general, Menachem Mazuz, seven settlers accused of blocking Palestinian motorists and attacking an Israeli policeman in Gaza were charged Sunday with disorderly conduct, illegally congregating and attempting to disrupt a police officer in Beersheba Magistrate’s Court.

A 17-year-old yeshiva student also is under arrest, on suspicion of heckling Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and slashing the tire of his car while he attended a wedding last week.

Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said the national mood reminded him of the run-up to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

“I am telling you, they will try to murder Prime Minister Sharon,” he warned fellow ministers.

Sharon’s bodyguard unit, like those of several other officials, has been beefed up.

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