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Israeli Cabinet Agrees to Free 400 More Prisoners

Times Staff Writer

Israel agreed Sunday to free the last 400 of 900 Palestinian prisoners whose release Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised during a February summit in Egypt.

The Cabinet approved the move, which had been delayed for weeks, in an 18-3 vote. Sharon told ministers that freeing the prisoners would help shore up Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose calls for an end to violence against Israel won praise from President Bush during the Palestinian leader’s visit to Washington last week.

“Those who believe that the events of the coming months are liable to strengthen the forces of extremist terrorism certainly understand the need to strengthen the principal moderate element in the PA and honor our commitments,” Sharon said in public comments before his weekly Cabinet meeting.

But Palestinian officials criticized the approved release as insufficient, and said they should have been given a say in determining who would be freed. Palestinians complain that in previous releases, most of those freed were near the end of their sentences. Prisoners who had spent more than a decade behind bars were not included.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called on Israel to convene a joint committee that was established to set guidelines for the release of prisoners.

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“This is not enough,” Erekat said. “I’m sure there are 400 Palestinian families who are happy. But there are over 8,000 Palestinians still in prison.”

Erekat also urged Israel to resume handing over security responsibility for West Bank towns to Palestinian forces. At the Feb. 8 summit, Sharon promised to transfer control of five towns, but Israel stopped after the hand-overs in Jericho and Tulkarm.

None of the 400 prisoners to be released were involved in violence against Israelis. Their names will be posted on a government website to give Israelis a chance to raise objections to the release of specific prisoners.

Right-wing Israeli ministers said freeing prisoners, who are viewed by most Palestinians as heroes in the struggle against Israeli occupation, would only encourage militants. Critics said Abbas had failed to take concrete steps against the fighters and shouldn’t be rewarded.

Israel released 500 Palestinians in February. But Sharon said three weeks ago that he was putting off further releases until Palestinian leaders took a harder stance against militants.

Abbas has refused to confront the fighters. Instead, he persuaded them to adopt a conditional cease-fire in March and is trying to coax them into joining the Palestinian political process.

In an interview Sunday, Abbas said he believed the era of suicide attacks was over.

“We have started to deal with the culture of violence; we stopped the culture of violence,” Abbas said on the ABC News program “This Week.”

“The Palestinian people have started looking at it as something that should be condemned and it should stop,” Abbas said.

Israel’s health minister, Dan Naveh, said mortar rounds were launched Saturday night at Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip. No injuries were reported.

“So long as the terror continues this way and so long as [Abbas] does nothing serious to stop it, there’s no reason for gestures which would only be interpreted as weakness on the Israeli side,” Naveh told Israel Radio.

Vice Premier Ehud Olmert, a Sharon ally, said Israel was obliged to fulfill its promises or risk losing international support for its planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. The evacuation of all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four smaller ones in the northern West Bank is set to begin in mid-August.

In other developments, three Palestinian militants died in the Gaza Strip. In Khan Yunis, a Hamas member was killed in an apparent misfire as he prepared to launch a rocket at Israeli soldiers, said Israeli military sources and Palestinian witnesses. In eastern Gaza City, two fighters from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade died when explosives they were handling detonated, witnesses said.

Elsewhere, Israeli troops near the West Bank town of Hebron shot to death a Palestinian man who charged at soldiers with a knife, the army said.

Early today, Palestinians said at least two people were hurt in an Israeli missile strike in northern Gaza. A military spokesman said an Israeli aircraft targeted rocket launchers militants had set up in an unpopulated area and that seemed ready to fire.

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Special correspondent Fayed abu Shammalah in Gaza City contributed to this report.


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