Israel’s cabinet agreed yesterday to release 250 Palestinian prisoners in the latest attempt to strengthen Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after Hamas’s seizure of the Gaza Strip. “I think this is a worthy gesture to make … because we want to use any means that can reinforce moderate elements in the Palestinian Authority,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the cabinet in broadcast remarks. Olmert had pledged to free prisoners of Abbas’s Fatah movement in a June 25 summit with the Palestinian leader as part of a Western campaign to bolster the new administration he named after sacking a unity government, headed by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh.
Saeb Erakat, a senior aide to Abbas, welcomed the Israeli decision but urged it to draw up the list of those to be freed in co-ordination with the Palestinians. “The prisoner issue needs more than gestures to be resolved, however, we welcome the release of prisoners any time,” he said. Officials estimate there are at least 10,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
An official in Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s office disclosed that new Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak held talks with the Western-backed economist last week to discuss who would be eligible for release. Fayyad, the official said, pushed for “political prisoners” to be freed.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said release of only Fatah-affiliated prisoners was part of an attempt by Abbas to “reinforce the principle of separation” with Hamas.
The US and European Union have been prodding Olmert to nurture contacts with Abbas’s emergency government in the hope of resuming long-stalled peace talks.