Israeli prisoner release derided by Palestinians

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The Independent Online

Israel has released 429 Palestinian prisoners in a gesture welcomed by their families but described as a "joke" by the jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti because of the severely limited numbers freed.

At the same time officials of the Ramallah-based emergency government established by the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, said it had shut down a total of 92 charities linked to Hamas in the West Bank in a fresh crackdown on the Islamic faction.

The numbers of mainly Fatah prisoners freed in a release originally approved in the approach to the Annapolis conference fell well short of the 2,000 reportedly urged by the US and Mr Abbas. Mr Barghouti complained to a group of Israeli Knesset members at the weekend that the sentences of most of the freed detainees would have been served in a matter of months anyway.

He claimed that the release depicted as a goodwill gesture aimed to boost negotiations due to start this month between Mr Abbas and the Israeli Prime minister, Ehud Olmert, in the wake of Annapolis could have covered 8,000 detainees.

While the homecoming detainees most from the West Bank but some from Gaza were greeted with emotional scenes from their relatives, they remain a small proportion of the 9,000 prisoners held in Israeli jails.

The releases did not include long-term detainees who were jailed before the Oslo accords in the early Nineties, whose freedom Mr Abbas has repeatedly called for since he became Prime Minister under Yasser Arafat in 2003. Israel has so far declined to release prisoners identified as having "blood on their hands".

The charitable committees dissolved yesterday were said to have been formed by local and religious leaders in the West Bank under the supervision of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. They collect money and distribute it to poor Palestinians, normally during religious holidays and are seen as an important base for Hamas's popular appeal.

Mr Abbas's Information Minister, Riad Malki, said they had been infiltrated in the past by Hamas activists who "transformed the charity committees into financial empires to serve their political ends and activities".

In Gaza, a Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, said the closure of the charities would lead to hunger in the West Bank, and added: "It's an attempt to weaken Hamas, but the Palestinian citizen will pay the price, because they benefit from these committees."

At the same time, up to 700 Palestinians were allowed out of Gaza yesterday in a rare move since the near-total closure imposed on the Strip after Hamas's enforced takeover in June. Most were pilgrims but there was also a smaller number of students on courses abroad. These included Khaled Al-Mudallal, a Bradford University student whose case had been among those over which the Israeli human rights organization Gisha had petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court.