PA sources: Abbas to ask Israel to bolster Fatah, release prisoners
Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas intends to demand that Israel immediately implement the American "benchmarks" proposal for increasing Palestinian freedom of movement in the territories. In addition, he will ask Israel to release a massive number of Palestinian prisoners, first and foremost Marwan Barghouti, advisors to Abbas said yesterday.
The advisors said that these steps are necessary to strengthen Abbas' Fatah movement in both the West Bank and Gaza.
The benchmarks proposal, prepared by U.S. security coordinator General Keith Dayton, demands a massive removal of Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank. According to the advisors, that would immediately improve life for every Palestinian.
Similarly, they said, a significant prisoner release would vastly increase Abbas' popularity, while Barghouti in particular - being the most popular Fatah politician - could do much to bolster chairman's standing. Barghouti is currently serving five life terms in prison for the murder of five Israeli civilians.
In addition, the advisors said, Israel must not interfere with efforts to recruit, train and arm Fatah's security forces. "Israel's operations completely destroyed these forces in the West Bank," said one. "[Israel] must allow freedom of movement to members of the Palestinian security services and not impede their training."
And finally, they said, Israel must resume diplomatic negotiations with Abbas, in order to give the Palestinians a diplomatic horizon, and must hand over all the tax revenues it has collected on the PA's behalf, so that Abbas can pay the authority's employees.
For his part, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared yesterday that Israel would work with the international community to meet the humanitarian needs of Gaza residents and would not intervene militarily in Gaza, but at the same time, "we will not stand idly by and watch the execution of innocent people." He did not explain what form Israel's refusal to "stand idly by" might take.
Olmert, who was meeting in New York with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, was responding to the UN official's fears of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
Earlier, a source in the prime minister's entourage said that Israel would continue to supply water, electricity and medical supplies to Gaza, and would also allow food and other essential supplies to enter the strip through Israel.
Olmert also promised that Israel would cooperate with the new government that Abbas appointed in the West Bank yesterday. However, the prime minister added, Abbas must in turn take vigorous action against Hamas forces in the West Bank to ensure that the Islamic organization does not take over there as well.
In addition, he said, Israel will consider releasing the frozen tax revenues, amounting to some $562 million, to Abbas. Though Israel collects this money on the PA's behalf, it has refused to transfer it to the PA government ever since Hamas won last year's parliamentary elections.
Olmert also told Ban that the Hamas takeover of Gaza proved that Israel's skepticism about the PA unity government had been justified.
On the plane en route to New York, a source in Olmert's entourage told journalists that the idea of stationing an international force along the Gaza-Egypt border to prevent arms smuggling into Gaza is no longer on the agenda. Egypt opposes the idea, and so does Hamas, the source explained, and this makes deployment of a force with a robust mandate highly unlikely.
Olmert flies to Washington today and will meet with U.S. President George W. Bush tomorrow.