Olmert to Offer Prisoner Release and Amnesty for Fatah Militants

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will present Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas with a package of measures that include the release of prisoners and the "pardoning" of wanted militants, during their meeting in Jerusalem today.

The Israeli measures are linked to yesterday's participation by scores of wanted members of Fatah's Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades in the signing of a document promising to refrain from terrorism and withdrawing their membership from the group.

Also yesterday, Israeli security sources said they are inclined to allow the head of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Nayef Hawatmeh, to enter the West Bank on Wednesday.

At today's meeting between Olmert and Abbas, Israel will present the Palestinian leader with measures including the release of Palestinian prisoners, the "pardoning" of wanted militants, entry permits to the West Bank for senior officials from the Popular and Democratic Fronts, as well as promises for lifting roadblocks in the West Bank - as soon as the necessary preparations are completed by the security forces.

"These are measures that we believe will contribute significantly to bolstering Abbas," a senior political source in Jerusalem said last night. "They hold political risks for Olmert, but it is a reasonable risk."

The meeting between the two leaders will be held at the prime minister's official residence in Jerusalem. In the original planning, Olmert had been scheduled to visit Jericho, but that has been postponed.

No other ministers will be included in the meeting with Abbas, but earlier, Olmert will hold preparatory meetings with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

The list of prisoners that are slotted for release includes 250 names, most members of Fatah, and the rest from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front (DFLP).

The adult prisoners scheduled for release have at least one year of their sentence left, while the minors have at least six months. Elderly and sick prisoners are also expected to be included.

"No once can claim that Israel is releasing prisoners that do not have significant portions of their sentence still to serve," a political source said.

A ministerial committee on the prisoners will meet Tuesday to approve the list, and initiate the process of releasing them, expected to take several days.

Olmert would also like to gain the release of some of the veteran prisoners jailed before the Oslo Accords in 1993, as long as they were not involved in attacks that killed Israelis.

Referring to the PFLP, the DFLP, and other Marxist-Leninist offshoots of the PLO, the political source said that even though Israel is not certain what their views are on the internal power struggle between Fatah and Hamas, Israel would like to encourage them to support Abbas and the head of the PA's emergency government, Salem Fayad.

However, the General Secretary of the PFLP, Ahmed Sa'adat, who is in jail for his role in the October 2001 assassination of the leader of the Moledet party, Rehavam Ze'evi, is not on the list of prisoners to be released.

The effort to draw the various non-Islamist factions toward supporting Abbas is also behind Olmert's inclination to accede to the request of the PA chairman to allow the head of the DFLP, Hawatmeh, and other senior figures from his group and the PFLP to enter the West Bank.

Abbas would like these leading veteran figures in the PLO to participate in a conference that will offer his leadership and the Fayad government legitimacy. The gathering is expected to take place in the West Bank, and entry is likely to be allowed for a specific period of time.

One of the intriguing developments in the package being offered by Olmert to Abbas is the "amnesty" to nearly 75 percent of the wanted militants of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades. Scores of the fugitive militants began signing a document yesterday that announced their resignation from the paramilitary organization and a promise to refrain from terrorism.

As of last night, nearly 150 of the 178 militants have signed the document.

Israel refuses to grant similar status to several dozens of the remaining, known members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, and there are Palestinian demands that they also be included in the deal.

Among the fugitives who are not on the "amnesty" list is Zacharia Zbeidi, the head of the Tanzim in Jenin, a political source in Jerusalem said. However, Palestinian media report that Zbeidi is also on the list.

The list of the wanted members of the Fatah's military wing was prepared by the Shin Bet and was compiled following meetings between Israeli officials and a PA security delegation headed by Ziad Habrich, commander of the Preventive Security in the West Bank.

The agreement with the Al-Aqsa fugitives includes four stages:

1. They will promise to refrain from terrorism and cut their links with the group.

2. They will spend a week in holding areas of the PA, where they will not be allowed to use cellular telephones or contact members of the group.

3. They will restrict their movements, for a three-month period, to the area where they reside.

4. After three months, they will be allowed to move freely in the West Bank.

"Our aim is to remove 180 persons from the list of targets of the Shin Bet, so that they can now focus on Hamas and Islamic Jihad," a political source said.

Hawatmeh likely to be granted entry

There are strong indications that Israel will allow DFLP leader Nayef Hawatmeh to enter the West Bank on Wednesday as part of the goodwill package toward Abbas.

"We need to view the request of the PA Chairman regarding Hawatmeh's entry into the West Bank favorably," Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said, "especially since it does not involve entry into Israel and it is for a limited period of time."

DFLP militants carried out an operation against the northern town of Ma'alot on May 15, 1974, in which 22 schoolchildren were killed.

"Even though Hawatmeh dealt with terrorism in the past, under the current circumstances he is proving to be a person capable of contributing toward leading the Palestinians toward a more rational condition," Vilnai added.