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Sharon Ends Prisoner Release, Tells Abbas to Curb Militants

Times Staff Writer

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Sunday that Israel would not free more Palestinian prisoners until the Palestinian leadership took tougher action against armed militants.

Sharon’s comments, made during the weekly Cabinet meeting, drew accusations from Palestinian officials that Israel was reneging on promises made during a summit in February.

That meeting, at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik, produced a cease-fire agreement and promises by Israel to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners and to transfer security control over five towns in the West Bank to Palestinian officials.

Israel has freed 500 prisoners and was to resume negotiations with Palestinian leaders on releasing 400 more. Negotiators met later Sunday to discuss criteria for further releases.

Last week, Israel said it was halting its hand-over of the remaining West Bank towns until the Palestinian government moved to disarm militants. Israel previously granted security responsibilities to Palestinian police in two West Bank towns, Jericho and Tulkarm.

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Palestinian leaders have complained with growing bitterness that Sharon is doing little to improve Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ ability to overcome political challenges by the militant group Hamas.

Abbas has accused Israel of dragging its feet in fulfilling promises it made at Sharm el Sheik. Some Palestinian analysts say Sharon is undercutting Abbas at a time when ordinary Palestinians are demanding improvements in daily life, including getting Israel to ease travel restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Winning the release of all or most of the 8,000 imprisoned Palestinians would bolster Abbas’ standing considerably.

“It’s a deliberate attempt not to have a partner,” said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. “They want to freeze things, unfortunately.”

Israeli officials said Sharon’s commitments at the Egyptian summit were tied to progress by the Palestinians in clamping down on armed groups. Under pressure from Abbas, the main Palestinian militant groups agreed in March to hold their fire against Israel. Since then, there have been scattered incidents of violence, including the sporadic firing of Kassam rockets from the Gaza Strip into Jewish settlements within Gaza and Israeli communities just outside its borders.

Despite the relative calm, Israeli leaders have demanded Abbas do more to rein in fighters by making arrests and confiscating weapons. Abbas has been reluctant to do so out of fear that a confrontation could lead to civil war.

“The Sharm understandings had it that the Israeli commitment to release 400 prisoners was linked to the Palestinian actions, and therefore the process is a comprehensive one,” said Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who heads the team negotiating the prisoner issue. “Israel can take steps to strengthen [Abbas] so long as this is in the framework of the boundaries which move the process forward rather than backward.”

Abbas has sought to move the guerrillas into the mainstream by persuading them to drop their guns and join security forces, which he has begun to reform.

Abbas faces widespread disenchantment over corruption and mismanagement by his Fatah organization, long the dominant player in Palestinian politics, under the leadership of the late Yasser Arafat. That impatience has boosted support for Hamas, which is making its first steps into electoral politics after more than four years of suicide bombings and other attacks against Israelis.

Hamas appeared to have won a substantial number of seats last week during the latest round of municipal elections in 84 communities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Unofficial results show that Fatah won the largest number of towns, but Hamas claimed victory in the most populous communities, suggesting that it could be a formidable competitor in parliamentary elections scheduled for July.

Election officials postponed the release of official counts until today, citing technical problems.

Fatah officials claimed electoral irregularities in the Gaza localities of Rafah, Bureij and Beit Lahiya, which unofficial tallies indicate were won by Hamas.


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