Text size

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri called yesterday for Hamas prisoners to be included among the 200 Palestinian prisoners the Israeli cabinet decided yesterday to release as a gesture to the Palestinian Authority. He said freeing only those from PA President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah faction 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 kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad 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 yesterday 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.

Hamas must stop obstructing progress in the deal to release Shalit, and uphold its end of the Egyptian-brokered truce with Israel, Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman reportedly told Khaled Meshal, the Hamas political bureau head in Damascus, a few days ago.

A senior government official in Jerusalem said that as far as Israel knows, Suleiman told Meshal that Egypt would not agree to Hamas' ongoing, hard-line stand in talks over Shalit's release. The official said Suleiman also said talks between Israel and Hamas, mediated by Egypt, should move ahead again intensively in Cairo, as was agreed more than a month ago. Egypt has made clear to both Israel and Hamas that it will not give up its position as broker in the Shalit talks, and will oppose any move to transfer responsibility for the negotiations to a European country such as Germany.

The government source said Egypt had demanded an answer from Hamas before the end of this week, ahead of meetings between Egyptian and Hamas officials in Damascus.

Negotiations over Shalit's release were to have been renewed immediately after the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas went into effect in mid-June, and the border crossings between Israel and Gaza were opened. However, because of the prisoner swap between Israel and Hezbollah, Hamas has now presented much harsher demands, in the belief that since Israel released Lebanese soldiers for the bodies of Israeli soldiers, the Islamic organization could demand a much higher price for Shalit, who is alive and being held in Gaza.

Most of the prisoners expected to be released as a result of yesterday's cabinet vote are in jail for relatively minor offenses, usually criminal in nature; they are scheduled to be released in a few months in any case.

The 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.

The prisoners due to be released include two who were convicted of murdering Israelis and were sentenced to some 30 years in prison. One has been in jail since 1977 for murdering an Israeli; the other has been incarcerated since 1979 for dispatching terrorists to launch an attack.

Sources in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's bureau said yesterday 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 yesterday, 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."

Ministers on the right, however, attacked the decision as harmful to the ongoing negotiations to release Shalit, who was seized by Gaza militants in June 2006 and has been held there since.

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 jail. 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.