Minister Haim Ramon said yesterday that the decision to release 900 Palestinian prisoners was necessary to strengthen Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). But in the same Israel Radio interview, he stressed that only prisoners who had received short sentences, or who had only a few months left to serve, would be freed. From the Palestinian perspective, a "gesture" of this nature does not strengthen Abbas; it humiliates him in the eyes of his public, and exposes the weakness of various Fatah organizations trying to free the prisoners.
These organizations - the Ministry for Prisoners' Affairs (headed by Hisham Abdel Razeq), the Prisoners' Club and others - want first and foremost for Israel and the Palestinians to draw up the list of prisoners to be freed together. The Palestinians want to prevent a repeat of the scene in which Israel releases mainly criminals, illegal entrants and prisoners with only a few days left to serve. The Palestinians understand that Israelis are not ready to digest the release of prisoners convicted of killing Israelis (even soldiers), but they expect Israel to understand that Palestinians view the release of criminals and illegal entrants, or those who were sentenced to only a few months, as a bad joke that has no chance at all of "strengthening Abu Mazen."
In the weeks since Abbas' election, Palestinian prisoners have urged him not to discuss how many will be freed, but rather what kinds of prisoners will be freed. They, along with the Ministry for Prisoners' Affairs, have formulated criteria regarding who should be released: the elderly, the ill, women and minors. If Israel adopted these criteria, that would genuinely improve the atmosphere.
The prisoners also want to end discrimination between East Jerusalem residents and residents of the West Bank and Gaza. The former were not released under the Oslo Accords, even if they had been convicted of far less serious crimes than many prisoners who were released. The prisoners argue that if East Jerusalem residents were allowed to vote in the PA elections, they are clearly part of the PA's population - and therefore, there is no reason why they should not be released as well.
By asking to participate in drawing up the lists, the Palestinians are also taking a risk: They will surely be accused of having neglected certain types of prisoners, or certain individuals. Nevertheless, the Palestinians consider their participation essential.
As of last night, however, there was no sign that Israel's government was prepared to involve them. And that is why Ramon's statements generated no enthusiasm among Abbas' associates, or in his Fatah party.
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