2,000 Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike as Clinton visits

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The Independent Online
SOME 2,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel joined ahunger strike yesterday to press for their release amid demonstrations and riots in towns throughout the West Bank over the weekend.

The strike will raise the political temperature in the run-up to President Bill Clinton's visit to Israel and Gaza, the largest Palestinian enclave, this week.

Israeli security officials are pressing Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, to expand the criteria under which prisoners are released, but he has refused, according to the Israeli press. Palestinians are disappointed that only 100 out of 250 prisoners released under the recent Wye Agreement were political prisoners. The rest were common criminals.

Israel says that the demonstrations, many of which have ended in riots, have been called by the Palestinian leadership. This is correct, but Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, is also trying to pacify Palestinian critics who say that he has betrayed prisoners who once fought for him, by a show of action on their behalf. The number and type of prisoners to be released was not mentioned in the Wye Agreement.

Israelis and Palestinians are manoeuvring before Mr Clinton's visit on Saturday to Gaza, which both sides see as being close to the recognition of a Palestinian state. Israel is insisting that he fly to Gaza airport by helicopter and not on Airforce One.

Mr Clinton is also to turn on the Christmas lights in Bethlehem. He and most his 1,000-strong delegation will take over the Hilton hotel in Jerusalem.

The Palestinian Authority said yesterday that it had started to collect illegal weapons, which was also agreed at Wye.

In future, illegal possession of a weapon will be punishable by a three- year prison sentence or a $7,500 (pounds 4,500) fine.

Another measure clearing the way for Mr Clinton's visit to Gaza will be meeting of the Palestinian Central Council on Thursday, which will reaffirm its acceptance of the right of Israel to exist. Israel and the Palestinians have disagreed on exactly how this should be done, Mr Arafat insisting that the Palestinian charter was altered to give it this sense in 1996.