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Israel to free prisoners in show of support for Abbas

Olmert announces his government's goodwill gesture at a summit with the Palestinian and other Arab leaders.

June 26, 2007|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

SHARM EL SHEIK, EGYPT — Israel will release 250 Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced Monday as he and Arab leaders met here to shore up Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and search for fresh peacemaking opportunities.

The summit, which was held by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and included King Abdullah II of Jordan, produced no breakthroughs. But it conveyed sharply how Hamas' recent military victory over Gaza Strip security forces loyal to Abbas has jolted the region.

During the four-way summit -- really a series of one-on-one meetings that included Abbas -- Olmert announced that Israel would ease travel for Palestinians in the West Bank as well as release prisoners who belonged to Fatah and were not involved in violence against Israelis.

No details were released on the changes to travel restrictions. Nor was it immediately clear who might be released by the Israelis. Palestinians have complained previously that such gestures have included many prisoners who were nearing the end of their sentences anyway.

As expected, Olmert also said Israel would resume monthly transfers of about $50 million in tax revenue that it collects for the Palestinian Authority but has withheld since the militant Hamas movement won parliamentary elections last year.

The Hamas takeover of Gaza in effect created a two-headed Palestinian government, with the coastal strip run by Hamas and the West Bank controlled by Abbas' Fatah party.

Olmert is under pressure to bolster Abbas, a relative moderate who is politically weak, although the Israeli leader has resisted entering into substantive talks aimed at settling the Middle East conflict.

The U.S. and its allies in the region hope that isolating Hamas and strengthening Abbas in the West Bank can bring the Islamist movement to heel.

The session at this Red Sea resort was devoid of broad expectations. The leaders did not meet as a group, except to gather around an oversize square table to read individual statements after the bilateral sessions.

Mubarak said the sessions had been "forthright and serious," but he gave no indication that the parties were closer to restarting substantive negotiations that have been frozen since the collapse of the Camp David talks in 2000.

In a statement, Mubarak said the "hopes for peace have retreated" since 2005, when he played host to a similar gathering with Abbas and Ariel Sharon, who was then Israel's prime minister. "The peace process has also witnessed stagnation."

The quickness with which the latest summit was staged, just 11 days after Hamas' victory in brutal street fighting, reflected a sense of urgency and opportunity among the four leaders who attended.

"It's possible that the summit will make a difference in terms of the restated commitment on the part of everyone involved to get things back on track," said Mark Heller, research director of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. "But we still have very serious obstacles in the way of a real peace agreement."

Israel is concerned about the threat posed by a Hamas mini-state next door that is fortified by weapons smuggled across the border from Egypt. Yet a major military offensive against the militant movement could mean many Israeli casualties, a big political risk for Olmert.

For Abbas, the Hamas victory has endangered the long-held vision of joining Gaza and the West Bank into a unified Palestinian state. He has responded by firing the Hamas-led government and naming an emergency Cabinet that won restoration of aid from the U.S. and European Union.

Abbas also has urged Israel to return to peace talks after a seven-year lull as the best way to prevent Hamas from making gains in the West Bank as well. Abbas and Olmert have met several times, but those talks yielded no tangible gains.

Mubarak and Abdullah fear that Hamas' takeover in Gaza could embolden Islamist political forces in their countries. It could also help Iran, a backer of the Islamist group, become a bigger power broker in the region.

Egyptian analysts said Mubarak, who fears the spread of Gaza-style disorder to the Sinai peninsula and deeper into Egypt, might squeeze Hamas by closing his country's border with Gaza.

Israel also has closed its border with the coastal enclave, including the crucial cargo passage at Karni, the main opening for food and merchandise. Israel has allowed stopgap shipments of basic food items, such as flour and cooking oil, through the separate Kerem Shalom crossing at the point where Gaza, Israel and Egypt meet.

Aid agencies warn that extended closures could eventually create a humanitarian crisis in the impoverished Gaza Strip.

Hamas has rejected the emergency government, saying the Islamist movement is still in charge of the Palestinian territories. The group's leaders labeled as "bribery" Israel's decision to unfreeze the Palestinian tax revenue for Abbas.

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