Israel releases former Hamas official

( AP ) - The Israeli military released a former Palestinian Cabinet minister swept up in a West Bank raid in May, saying Tuesday he had agreed to renounce his Hamas membership and would no longer hold positions for the militant Islamic group.

Separately, Israeli Cabinet ministers approved a list of 256 Palestinian prisoners to be released Friday in a gesture of support for moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas - nearly all of them linked to his Fatah movement - but the release faced court challenges in Israel and Palestinian criticism.

Prominent among the prisoners is Abdel Rahim Malouh, second in command of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which carried out the assassination of Israeli Cabinet Minister Rehavam Zeevi in 2001.

Malouh, who is about 60 years old, is said to be ill. Arrested in 2003, Malouh is considered close to Abbas and could serve as a mediator with Hamas. Abbas has refused to talk to Hamas since its forces took over the Gaza Strip in mid-June, leaving Abbas in control of the West Bank.

The Israeli Cabinet committee in charge of prisoners approved the list on Tuesday by a vote of 7-2, according to David Baker, an official in Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office.

Israeli officials said 85 percent of the prisoners to be freed Friday are from Fatah, and the others are from smaller groups like PFLP. None belong to Hamas.

The release Tuesday of Education Minister Nasser Shaer of Hamas, who was part of the Cabinet dismissed by Abbas after the Gaza takeover, was unrelated to the list of Palestinian prisoners.

Shaer, considered a pragmatist, was among 33 Hamas officials, including lawmakers, arrested in a West Bank in raid before the Islamic group's violent takeover of the Gaza Strip. The detentions drew expressions of concern from Washington and condemnation from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israeli groups associated with hawkish groups and terror victims were expected to try to stop the wider release on Friday, although Olmert's office says none of the 256, including six women, were directly involved in carrying out attacks against Israelis.Almagor, representing families of victims of terror attacks, said it would appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court to stop it. On its Web site, Almagor says that 179 Israelis have been killed since 2000 by Palestinians freed in previous deals. Appeals against previous prisoner releases have had little effect.

Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, a former head of the Shin Bet internal security service, supported the release. "This is certainly an acceptable risk Israel is taking in order to strengthen the regime of Abu Mazen," he said after touring a prison in Israel's southern Negev Desert, where some of the Palestinian prisoners are being held.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat carefully praised the release, saying freedom for any Palestinian prisoners is welcome, but he urged Israel to free more. Israel holds about 10,500 Palestinian prisoners.

Criticism came from the Palestinian minister for prisoner affairs, Ashraf al-Ajrami. " Israel insists on releasing those who have limited sentences," al-Ajrami said. "We want a release of prisoners who received long sentences."

In the past, Israel has won little credit from Palestinians for freeing prisoners, as Palestinians complain that not enough were freed and demand that the most prominent detainees be let go.

Those would include some convicted in deadly attacks, like West Bank Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life terms after murder convictions. Israel has always refused to free prisoners they say have "blood on their hands."

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