Israel to release prisoners as gesture to Abbas

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The Independent Online

The Israeli cabinet agreed yesterday to release 200 Palestinian prisoners, including two jailed 30 years ago for attacks on Israelis, as a gesture to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Nabil Abu Rdainah, an Abbas aide, called the move "a step in the right direction" as Israel and the Palestinians pursue a statehood deal by January in US-sponsored talks, but said "thousands, not hundreds" of prisoners should be set free. Israel has about 11,000 Palestinians in its jails.

A spokesman for the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the decision was aimed at bolstering Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. The release should be carried out around 25 August, before Ramadan. A release list has not been finalised but would include long-serving inmates, women and children, and two prisoners involved in attacks on Israelis before the 1993 Oslo peace deal.

Dogged by a corruption scandal, Mr Olmert has pledged to use his remaining time in office to pursue efforts to reach a peace deal with Mr Abbas. Mr Olmert has said he will resign once his Kadima party chooses a new leader in September.

Mr Abbas was weakened by last year's takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas Islamists, and his efforts to seal an agreement with Mr Olmert have been hampered by violence and the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. Mr Abbas has apparently requested that the group include Said Atabeh, a member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who was jailed in 1977 and is the longest-serving Palestinian prisoner in Israel.