Text size

Exiled Hamas leader, Khaled Meshal blamed Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for Cpl. Gilad Shalit's continued captivity, in a television interview on Wednesday, a day after Israel approved the release of 256 Palestinian prisoners as part of a series of goodwill gestures to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

"Olmert is stubborn and does not want to release our prisoners," Meshal told AL-Jazeera's satellite television channel according to The Associated Press.

Public Security Minister Avi Dichter said the agreed prisoner release is a "risk that we can take."

He said that Israel has released Palestinian prisoners in the past to bolster previous governments in efforts to promote peace talks.

"I hope this is going to bring forward and improve the relations with the [Palestinian Authority] and especially to enable Mahmoud Abbas to start moving with his own security apparatuses in the West Bank," Dichter said.

The finalized list was approved by the cabinet on Tuesday, and the names were later posted by the Israel Prisons Authority on the Internet in order to allow Israelis 48 hours to challenge the decision in court ahead of the anticipated Friday release.

Among the 256 prisoners scheduled to be released from Israeli prisons this Friday is second in command of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PLFP) Abdel Rahim Malouh.

Malouh is about 60 years old and is said to be ill. He was arrested in 2003. He is a member of the PFLP's executive committee.

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 PFLP carried out the assassination of Israeli Cabinet Minister Rehavam Zeevi in 2001.

Ministers Shaul Mofaz (Kadima), Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) and Eli Yishai (Shas) voted against the release.

Mofaz said the release was a heavy price to pay for nothing in exchange. "It will raise the price that Hamas will demand for Gilad Shalit, and we need to hold onto prisoners for that goal," he said, referring to the Israel Defense Forces soldier abducted by militants on the Gaza Strip border in June of last year.

"I'm not sure how the ministers would have voted if their son had been abducted. I'm not opposed to supporting Abbas, but while Shalit is in their hands, it's not right to carry this thing out," he said.

Khaled Meshal blamed Israel's prime minister for the lack of progress in negotiations over Shalit's release, calling him stubborn and saying "Gilad Shalit is a war prisoner. We have accepted Egyptian brothers to be a party to negotiate with the Israelis and seek to find a solution to the matter."

The prime minister's office was not immediately available for comment.

David Baker, an official in the Prime Minister's Office, told Haaretz that six women were added to the original list of 250 as "an additional humanitarian gesture" to Abbas.

102 of the prisoners on the list have served less than half of their respective sentences. 61 prisoners have already served more than two thirds of their sentence. Among those freed are 11 minors and one or two elderly prisoners that have been in jail for 15 years. None of the prisoners being released was involved in the murder of Israelis, a political source said.

"There is no Israeli citizen that can claim he was harmed by one of them [the prisoners]," the political source added.

"However, most of them were involved in attempts to carry out terrorist attacks that failed."

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said during the meeting that any prisoner slated for release that refuses to sign a "form of commitment" to refrain from dealing in terror against Israel, will not be released.

The release will take place at several checkpoints in the West Bank, under the watch the Prisons Authority, and with the help of the IDF, the police and general security services.

Yishai said he was opposed to the moved because "we are flooding [Abbas] with gestures, the efficiency of which we cannot check."

"We understood that unilateral political moves do not work, so we're moving on to unilateral gestures that are also inefficient, certainly at this time," he continued.

In response to another gesture aimed at boosting Abbas' standing, most of the fugitive militants who are members of Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades have surrendered their arms to the Palestinian Authority, including some of those not included in the list of 178 to whom Israel offered immunity.

A handful are still refusing to give up their arms because they had not been included in the immunity deal.

In Nablus, considered to be the center of the Brigades' armed cells, at least 13 of the militants who were not offered immunity, signed the document affirming their commitment to relinquish terrorism and resign from the organization. They also surrendered their arms to PA authorities.

According to Palestinian sources, a total of 93 Al-Aqsa militants - 80 of them appearing on Israel's list of 178 - have signed the agreement and handed in their weapons.

The commander of preventive security in Nablus, Akram Rajoub, told Haaretz Monday that all Al-Aqsa militants in the Nablus area agreed to cease their activities against Israel.

"Whoever is on the list gave in his arms," Rajoub said. "Moreover, those who were not on the list also surrendered their weapons. The response was absolute."

During a visit to Nablus, a Haaretz crew did not see any armed men in the streets, and three men affiliated with the Martyrs' Brigades were seen without their weapons.

A few Palestinians were seen armed with pistols.

The militants said they had given up their weapons at the PA security forces headquarters.

They added that during the day they stay in the PA security compound, as required by the agreement they signed. This restriction is effective for a week.

The militants also expressed their disappointment that not all the members of Al-Aqsa were included in the immunity deal offered by Israel as a gesture of support to PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

A Palestinian security source told Haaretz Monday that according to the understanding with Israel, at the end of a three-month trial period, Israel will extend the immunity agreement to those Al-Aqsa militants who are not on the original list of 178 men.