Israel frees 334 prisoners but fails to satisfy Palestinians

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The Independent Online

Israel released 334 Palestinian prisoners yesterday as a goodwill gesture to Abu Mazen, the Palestinian Prime Minister. But as a confidence building measure, it built precious little confidence.

In a 74th birthday interview with the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, Yasser Arafat, the President of the Palestinian Authority, dismissed the release as "an act of fraud and deceit". He accused the Israelis of arresting more people than they had freed since the Palestinians declared a unilateral ceasefire a month ago.

Khaleda Jarar, head of the Palestinian Prisoners' Club in the West Bank, protested that almost half the prisoners freed yesterday were administrative detainees held without charge. Of the rest, 80 per cent were in the final year of their sentence.

Addameer, a prisoners' support and human rights organisation, said their offences tended to be relatively minor - stone-throwing, possessing weapons and using weapons in situations where no one was injured. Palestinian officials demanded the release of the more than 6,000 prisoners still behind bars.

Israel did include 71 members of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other dissident groups, but stuck to its refusal to free anyone with blood on his hands.

The Palestinians had hoped for a larger release, including long-term prisoners, women and children. Mohammed Dahlan, the Palestinian security minister and a senior negotiator, said: "What the Israelis are doing will complicate the peace process and frustrate supporters of peace among the Palestinians."

Israeli ministers had hinted at releasing about 1,000 prisoners, but Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister, was reluctant to press his right-wing cabinet too hard. He also faced growing opposition from the families of intifada victims. None the less, if the truce holds, ministers say other prisoners will be released. Gideon Ezra, a former senior security official who is now a minister without portfolio, predicted that they would eventually include killers.

As a condition for release the prisoners had to sign a declaration saying they opposed all terror and violent actions, and they would "desist from returning and carrying out the type of crimes for which I was convicted".

Ami Ayalon, a former head of the Shin Bet security service, said yesterday that if the international "road-map" succeeded in bringing peace, the prisoner release would be seen as a milestone. If it failed, most of them would soon return to their bad old ways.

The road-map process is now at a standstill. Mr Mazen cancelled a meeting, scheduled for yesterday, with Mr Sharon. As well as their disappointment of the scale of the prisoner release, the Palestinians complain that Israel is stalling over the evacuation of its troops from West Bank towns; is continuing to expand Jewish settlements; and is seizing Palestinian land for its controversial security fence.

The Israelis, for their part, say they could be more forthcoming if the Palestinians fulfilled their commitment to dismantle the terrorist organisations. Shaul Mofaz, the Defence Minister, acknowledged this week that the level of violence had diminished significantly over the past month, but Israel is concerned that Hamas is exploiting the lull to regroup.

The Israeli Supreme Court yesterday barred right-wing activists from entering Temple Mount today, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, when Jews traditionally mourn the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. Two Likud MPs vowed they would invoke parliamentary immunity and defy the order. But police said they would stop them.

The Jewish Temple Mount is also the Muslim Al-Aqsa mosque. A high-profile visit three years ago by Mr Sharon, when he was leader of the opposition, sparked the first riots of what grew into the intifada. Neither the police nor his government want a repeat performance.