Israel Publishes Names of 199 Palestinian Prisoners Slated for Release

Ministerial committee okays list of prisoners to be released as goodwill gesture to Palestinian Authority.

The Israel Prisons Authority on Monday published a complete list of the names of 199 Palestinian prisoners who were slated to be released in a gesture of goodwill aimed at bolstering Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Most of the names on the list are members of Abbas' Fatah movement who were arrested in recent years.

Among the names are two prisoners classified as having "blood on their hands" - meaning they were directly involved in the killing of Israelis. Mohammed Abu Ali-Yata from the West Bank city of Hebron is currently serving two consecutive life sentences and has been incarcerated since 1980 for killing an Israeli settler in the West Bank. He was later convicted of killing a Palestinian in jail he accused of collaborating with Israel. Abu Ali-Yata also serves as a lawmaker from Abbas' Fatah party.

The other prisoner is Sayed al-Ataba who planted bombs in open-air markets in Petah Tikva and in Tel Aviv as well as buses. Al-Atba, 57, is the longest serving prisoner held by Israel and he is widely seen by the Palestinian public as a symbol for the prisoners.

The remainder of the prisoners on the list face charges ranging from attempted murder to firing a weapon at civilians, possession of weapons and explosives, jeopardizing state security, sale of arms, rock-throwing, planting bombs with intent to kill, conspiracy to murder, membership in illegal organizations and espionage, among other charges.

Most of the prisoners are in jail for relatively minor offenses, usually criminal in nature, and many were due for release in several months regardless of the cabinet's decision to release them.

The fate of the roughly 9,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails is highly emotional, since many Palestinians either know someone in prison or have served time themselves. Abbas, who is struggling to show his people the fruits of drawn-out peace negotiations with Israel, has repeatedly urged Israel to carry out a large-scale release.

"Solving the prisoner problem paves the road to solving other issues in [peace] negotiations," said Ahmed Abdel Rahman, a spokesman for Abbas. He said the inclusion of long-serving prisoners would bolster the president's credibility with the public, which has grown skeptical over the slow pace of peace talks.

Earlier Monday, the ministerial committee overseeing the release of the jailed Palestinians approved the list, voted on by the Cabinet on Sunday.

The committee's authoritization of the names marked one of the final legal hurdles required before the deal can be implemented.

Sunday's cabinet decision stated that the release would be a gesture to Abbas ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. A government official said the release would be carried out around August 25, before the holiday begins.

While the decision has been approved, it nevertheless was met with resistance by many ministers who said a deal must first be secured to release abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was seized by Gaza militants in June 2006.

Public Security Minister Avi Dichter voted against the release, in light of the decision to release two prisoners with "blood on their hands."

Dichter told the panel that the two were murderers who had attacked not only Israelis but also a fellow Palestinian inmate suspected of collaborating with Israel. He stressed that the prisoners should not be released until progress was made on a prisoner exchange deal with Hamas over the release of Shalit.

Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz also opposed the release, saying: "I do not believe in hopeless gestures made for diplomacy alone. These negotiations have been going on for a year, and until now not a result has been achieved. A gesture alone, without exchange, is a step of weakness."

Opposition leader and Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu said: "Instead of taking a position of attacking terror, the government is freeing terrorists with blood on their hands, in exchange for nothing, while Gilad Shalit continues to rot in captivity."

"The inevitable result is that terror organizations will understand that they can send more terrorists to carry out more attacks in Israel - and they'll know that one day, they too will be freed," Netanyahu added.

On Sunday, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri called for Hamas prisoners to be included among the Palestinian prisoners released by Israel. He said freeing only Fatah members would be "an attempt to strengthen the Palestinians' internal divisions."

Speaking from the Gaza Strip, Abu Zuhri added that the release of "prisoners from all Palestinian factions" was one of the central conditions Hamas was demanding in a prisoner swap, referring to the stalled talks on the release of Shalit, who is being held in Gaza.

However, in response to Abu Zuhri's criticism, the Hamas government spokesman, Taher Nunu, said Ismail Haniyeh's government sees the release of any Palestinian from Israeli jails as an achievement for the entire public, and as "the victory of the will of the resistance, and a means for persisting in the conflict with the Israeli occupation."

During a tour Sunday of the village of Tubas in the northern West Bank, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad told the Associated Press he welcomed Israel's decision to release the 200 Palestinian prisoners, but added: "We ask Israel to change its conditions for releasing prisoners and we ask for the release of all prisoners without exception."

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, an aide to Abbas, called the move "a step in the right direction." However, he said "thousands, not hundreds" of prisoners should be set free.

Sources in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's bureau said Sunday that the decision to release the prisoners was a confidence-building move, the goal of which was to strengthen the moderate elements in the PA. The sources also said that security officials assessed the danger to the public posed by the two murderers as very low.

During the cabinet debate Sunday, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said: "The release of prisoners only to those who use force against Israel transmits a message of weakness and surrender to pressure, while the release of prisoners to pragmatic elements as part of the peace process encourages the policy by which dialogue with Israelis leads to these achievements for the Palestinians."