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Israel Approves Release of Prisoners

About 430 Palestinians are to be freed starting Wednesday in a bid to satisfy a key demand.

August 04, 2003|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — The Israeli government Sunday approved the release of more than 400 Palestinian prisoners starting as early as this week in a bid to satisfy a key Palestinian demand and to prevent the latest peace plan from breaking down.

The list of Palestinians to be sprung from Israeli jails and detention centers comprises an assortment of prisoners, from petty thieves to elderly convicts to men held as possible security risks, Israeli officials said. The first of the releases could come as soon as Wednesday.

Haggling over how many and what kind of prisoners to let go has occupied the Israeli government for weeks as progress on the "road map" for peace, an initiative co-sponsored by the U.S., has lurched forward. While not technically part of the plan, the release of at least some of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody has become a key point of contention.

The names of those to be freed -- about 430 in all -- are expected to be made public beginning today. The list will be closely scrutinized and, almost certainly, criticized by Palestinian officials who regard anything short of a blanket release as inadequate and Israeli opponents who say any such concessions could imperil Israeli lives despite a temporary cease-fire declared by Islamic militant groups.

More violence on both sides broke out Sunday. In the morning, Israeli soldiers shot dead a Palestinian motorist who they said failed to heed warnings to stop at a military checkpoint in Jerusalem. The man was shot as he got out of his vehicle and tried to flee, Israeli radio reported.

On Sunday night, four Israelis, a mother and three children, were wounded in a shooting ambush on the outskirts of Jerusalem, near the West Bank town of Bethlehem. Israeli troops recently withdrew from Bethlehem as part of their obligations under the peace plan. Militants affiliated with the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade -- one of the armed groups that have agreed to the cease-fire -- claimed responsibility for the attack.

"We're willing to make gestures and release prisoners," said Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "Why do we have to pay in blood?"

Israel has conducted prisoner releases in past negotiations with the Palestinians, but many of those freed have been small-time criminals and other delinquents rather than those suspected of involvement in the two intifadas, or uprisings, against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Meeting Sunday evening, an Israeli ministerial committee charged with drawing up the list of releases rejected suggestions that it include Palestinians in the middle of legal proceedings or trials. "You can't ignore the legal process," Gissin said.

Israel also refuses to let go people it accuses of "having blood on their hands" -- involvement in terror attacks against Israelis, hundreds of whom have died during the second intifada, a conflict that has claimed more than 2,000 Palestinians as well.

Gissin said that the prisoners who will be freed have been deemed to pose no future threat to Israel's security.

On the Palestinian side, guards at Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah have released from detention 17 militants whom Arafat had asked to be removed to Jericho, also in the West Bank. Arafat's security detail had reportedly locked the men in a room after they refused the Palestinian leader's order to go.

Arafat apparently hoped that the men's removal would help persuade Israeli forces to ease their siege of his battered headquarters and, perhaps, pull out entirely from Ramallah. But Israel has said that a withdrawal from the city was not imminent.

The militants were reportedly released from their house arrest on condition they remain at the headquarters, abide by the cease-fire and restrict contact with outsiders to family.

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