Israel approves list of Palestinian prisoners to be freed

Israel Materials 18 August 2008 19:54 (UTC +04:00)

An Israeli ministerial committee Monday approved a list with the names of 200 Palestinian militants who will be freed from Israeli prisons later this month, an Israeli official said, dpa reported.

The release is a "goodwill gesture" to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ahead of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan, to start this year September 1.

The approval came after the full Israeli cabinet voted in favour of the release Sunday.

The 200 prisoners will be released "in the coming days," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa, without giving a specific date.

The 200 are all "security prisoners," held for membership in Palestinian militant organizations declared illegal in Israel, involvement in attempted shooting and bomb attacks or possession of weapons.

They are members of militant off-shoots of Abbas' Fatah party and the move is aimed at strengthening the standing of the moderate Palestinian president opposite the radical Islamic Hamas movement ruling Gaza. No Hamas members are among those to be released.

Since Israel declared the revival of negotiations with Abbas at a peace summit in Annapolis, Maryland in November, it has freed some 400 Palestinian prisoners, nearly of them Fatah members.

Regev said Sunday that the impending release was intended "to demonstrate that the path of moderation, negotiation and reconciliation would bring tangible results."

His comments were a reference to Hamas, which snatched an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid on June 25, 2006, intending to use him as a bargaining chip to secure the freedom of prisoners.

But the Egyptian-mediated negotiations for the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit have so far come to naught.

Most of those on the list approved Monday are held for minor security offences.

But the list includes two Palestinians "with blood on their hands," the definition Israel uses for militants who took part or abetted in "successful" attacks against Israelis that resulted in deaths or injuries.

The two are Said al-Atabeh and Mohammed Abu Ali Yatta, the longest and the second-longest held Palestinian prisoner in Israel, who served more than, and almost, 30 years in jail respectively.

Abu Ali Yatta killed an Israeli policeman in the southern West Bank city of Hebron in 1979 and has since also killed a Palestinian prisoner in jail whom he accused of collaboration with Israel.

Al-Atabeh carried out a triple bombing in the central Israeli city of Petah Tiqva in 1977, in which an Israeli woman was killed and some 20 other people injured.

Both are now around 50 and their inclusion in the list was the reason Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter and Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz, both of Olmert's ruling, centrist Kadima party, voted against the release.

Mofaz, a relative hawk and a former army chief of staff and defence minister, said the release of prisoners "with blood on their hands" was a sign of "weakness."

Dichter, a former head of the Shin Bet internal security agency, was equally blunt.

"These are two murderers. The hands of each, separately, are dipped deep in the blood of Israelis, one of them also in the blood of a Palestinian," he said.

In Israel, the debate over whether to release Palestinian prisoners "with blood on their hands" is highly emotional, with relatives of victims often demanding they remain behind bars, and hawks arguing that the release of Palestinian prisoners gained Israel no tangible benefits.

For the Palestinians, however, securing the freedom of the prisoners is a national aim, and Palestinian leaders repeated demand that all be released.

According to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, Israel currently holds some 8,472 Palestinian security prisoners in its jails.

The number includes 5,176 Palestinians serving a sentence, 2,605 Palestinians awaiting or undergoing trial, and another 691 Palestinians held in "administrative detention," a controversial, special legal ground for holding suspects who are deemed a "security threat" without trial for extendable six-month periods.

About 30 Palestinians more are held in Israeli army detention facilities.

Palestinians put the number much higher, at around 11,000, but the discrepancy could stem from the fact that 1,500 Palestinians have also been jailed for such civil offences as car theft, robbery, drugs and rape.