Israel to free 'car thieves' in second part of exchange

Israel is to release a second batch of Palestinian prisoners this month as part of an exchange deal for the recently freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, but may largely exclude political prisoners from the swap.

Such a decision would deal a humiliating blow to the moderate Palestinian leadership, which had hoped to secure the release of high-profile political prisoners who were part of Fatah, the party of President Mahmoud Abbas, as reward for pursuing a policy of peace.

In October, Israel agreed to release 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in two phases in exchange for Mr Shalit, who was held captive in Gaza by its Islamist rulers, Hamas, for more than five years. Hundreds of security prisoners, many of them members of Hamas, were released in the first tranche, a deal that bolstered the militant movement and was hailed as a victory for the language of force.

But hopes that the second tranche would include Fatah prisoners serving life terms appeared dashed following reports in Israeli newspapers that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government will instead release mainly petty criminals or those with little time left to serve.

"We will release car thieves, [and] not make any gestures to [President] Abbas," an Israeli government official was quoted by The Jerusalem Post newspaper as saying. The paper said that the deal was expected to go ahead on 18 December. The Prime Minister's office declined to comment.

The plight of prisoners convicted of security-related offences mainly committed during the Second Intifada remains one of the most emotive issues for Palestinians, who regard those people as prisoners of war. Many are serving multiple life sentences with little prospect of release in their lifetime.

Israeli defence officials have urged Mr Netanyahu to make concessions to Mr Abbas, arguing that a weakened Palestinian leader will not be able keep a lid on growing frustration at a fruitless peace process that has gone nowhere in nearly 20 years of talks and has stalled the past three years.