Israel frees more than 250 prisoners

( AP ) - A top PLO body gave its approval Thursday for President Mahmoud Abbas to hold new presidential and legislative elections, a high-stakes gamble meant to sideline Hamas militants but also bound to set off more confrontations between Palestinian rivals Fatah and Hamas.

Hamas, which won parliament elections last year, immediately threatened to derail a new vote.

On Friday, Israel started releasing more than 250 Palestinian prisoners in an attempt to bolster Abbas in his power struggle with Hamas.

A first batch of about 120 prisoners were put aboard buses at the Ketziot prison camp in southern Israel's Negev desert early Friday morning, headed for the West Bank.

The transfer was scheduled to be completed by around midday when all 256 released prisoners are to meet Abbas at his Ramallah headquarters.

A two-day meeting of the 115-member Central Council of the Palestine Liberation Organization concluded Thursday with an endorsement of Abbas' plan to stage elections and to switch to a proportional electoral system, under which voters cast ballots for parties rather than individual candidates. The decisions were adopted by consensus.

A senior Israeli security official, meanwhile, said Hamas militants have significantly stepped up weapons smuggling since taking over Gaza by force last month. He said Hamas has brought 20 tons of explosives into Gaza and is trying to import longer-range rockets. Israel's military will have to intervene at some point to avert a growing threat, the official said.

Hamas rejected the Israeli assessment. "This is not true," said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum. "They want to use this as a pretext to tighten the siege on Gaza."

Abbas and Hamas have been wrangling over political legitimacy since the Gaza takeover. Abbas, separately elected in 2005, fired the Hamas-led government and installed a West Bank-based caretaker Cabinet of moderates. Hamas has denounced the measures as unconstitutional.

It remains unclear whether Abbas is serious about a new vote or simply trying to pressure Hamas to reverse its Gaza takeover. The next scheduled elections are in January 2010.

The risks of holding elections are high. Abbas aides have said he would run for president again, even though polls indicate his popularity is low and he'd be neck-and-neck with Hamas' most popular politician, Ismail Haniyeh, who was deposed as prime minister by Abbas last month.

Hamas can prevent voting in Gaza, and this would deepen the territorial division between Hamas-run Gaza and the Abbas-ruled West Bank.

Even if voting goes ahead in the West Bank, a Fatah stronghold, there's no guarantee Abbas or his party would win. Fatah was ousted in 2006 because of widespread voter anger over official corruption, and the party has failed to reform.

If Abbas moves forward with elections, they would likely be held late this year or early next year.

Mahmoud Zahar, the leader of Hamas' hardline wing, said Hamas would try to derail elections. "The Palestinian people, and Hamas is a part of the people, will not allow early elections to create results that America approves of," he told reporters in Gaza City.

Some participants in Thursday's Central Council meeting said they believe Abbas is simply trying to force Hamas to reverse the takeover, and that in such a case he'd quickly call off elections.

"Our call for early elections is another means of pressure on Hamas to retract," said Ahmed Majdalani, a member of a small PLO faction.

Abbas' push for early elections came as the "Quartet" of Mideast peacemakers - EU, U.N. U.S. and Russia - was meeting in Portugal with its newly appointed emissary, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The meeting was to follow up on President Bush's call this week for a peace conference in the fall.

Despite his star power, Blair was only given a limited mandate, to help the Palestinians develop their infrastructure and economy. This would make any breakthrough in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict under his leadership unlikely.

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