Gaza talks focus on jailed Palestinians

As Israel prepares to release Palestinian women prisoners today or tomorrow, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, and Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, met last night to discuss the expansion of Palestinian self-rule on the West Bank and Gaza.

Israel has balked at freeing the 25 women prisoners in the past on the grounds that five of them "had Jewish blood on their hands", through involvement in the murder of Israelis. Israeli President Ezer Weizman is to consider pardoning Jews who murdered Palestinians, such as Ami Popper, who killed seven workers standing beside the road in 1990.

Ironically, the majority of Palestinian women in detention are there because they preferred to be in an Israeli jail than face arranged marriages or abuse at home. They therefore attacked Israeli soldiers, usually with a kitchen knife, knowing they would be sent to prison. The Palestinian Women's Organisation for Political Prisoners has told The Independent that only 8 out of 29 women prisoners - a higher figure than that given by Israel - had political motives.

Mr Arafat and Mr Netanyahu, who met at the Erez crossing point into Gaza, were expected to discuss the release of 5,000 male Palestinian prisoners as well as the withdrawal of Israeli troops from rural areas, the opening of a Palestinian sea port and airport in Gaza, as well as free passage between Gaza and the West Bank. Mr Arafat will demand that Israel stop building Jewish settlements, confiscating Palestinian land and revoking the residency of East Jerusalem Palestinians.

In Lebanon, meanwhile, seven Israeli soldiers were wounded yesterday in a mortar, machine-gun and anti-tank rocket attack by Hizbollah, the Lebanese guerrillas, on an outpost in the Israeli-occupied zone. Israeli planes later attacked suspected Hizbollah positions.

The helicopter accident on 4 February in which 73 Israeli soldiers and airmen died has provoked discussion of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, culminating in a meeting at the weekend of political and intelligence leaders to talk about a pullout.

Held in the home of Gideon Ezra, a member of the Knesset for the right- wing Likud party and formerly a senior officer in the Shin Bet secret service, the meeting was attended by Yossi Beilin of the Labour party and other political figures. Within the government Avigdor Kahalani, the Internal Security Minister, said even before the accident that Israeli troops were "sitting ducks" in Lebanon.

Mr Netanyahu has rejected a pullout, saying: "This border was at first grabbed by Palestinian terrorists and now it has been seized by Hizbollah terrorists who rely on Syria and Iran."

He did not foresee any change in Israeli policy in Lebanon unless there was a change in Israel's relations with Syria. Mr Beilin argues that Syria has no interest in negotiating a withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon, because it can pressure them though support of Hizbollah.

Thousands of Israelis continue to visit Shar Yishuv, the site in northern Israel where the two helicopters crashed without survivors. As the Ivri commission looks for the causes of the accident, which occurred at 7.07pm last Tuesday when the helicopters were circling at 300ft as they waited for their landing sites to be prepared in Lebanon, there are growing doubts that the reason for the crash will ever be found.

According to the preliminary investigation, the lead helicopter had begun to turn when the main rotor of the second helicopter struck it. One theory is that the night vision device used by the pilots obscures their view.

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