Israel's conditions on prisoner release pose threat to ceasefire

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The Independent Online

A week-old ceasefire between Israelis and Palestinians was facing its first crisis yesterday. Ariel Sharon's cabinet voted by a narrow majority to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, but on conditions that provoked militant groups to threaten new violence.

A ministerial committee will sift through a list presented by the Shin Bet security service, but the Israeli Prime Minister said that no prisoner who had murdered Israeli civilians would go free. Nor would members of Hamas or Islamic Jihad.

Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli Defence Minister, poured cold water on hopes of an early release. After a three-hour meeting in Jerusalem with his Palestinian counterpart, Mohammed Dahlan, he told reporters that it would begin in "weeks rather than days". He also said there was no timetable for freeing prisoners or for pulling Israeli forces out of more West Bank towns.

Israel holds more than 6,000 Palestinian prisoners, of whom about 2,000 are said to have "blood on their hands". More than half of those belong to Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which reluctantly endorsed the ceasefire.

Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a Hamas leader who escaped an Israeli assassination attempt in Gaza last month, told The Independent: "This is a clear sign that the Zionist side has rejected the ceasefire. They are giving us a green light to continue the resistance." Mohammed al-Hindi, a spokesman for Islamic Jihad, said: "If the Israelis stick to these terms, they are pushing us to a situation where there will be no ceasefire." Hisham Abdel Raziq, the Palestinian minister responsible for prisoners' affairs, warned: "If they will not release Hamas or Islamic Jihad prisoners or those with blood on their hands, we cannot be part of this deal. We will leave the ceasefire. From our point of view, the prisoner release is the most important issue."

Mr Sharon had a difficult time persuading his right-wing ministers to open the prison doors. In a first vote, the cabinet was deadlocked at 10-10. Only after a rider was added making the release conditional on the Palestinian Authority's performance in fighting terror did the Prime Minister secure a majority of 13-9.

The dissenters included key members of his Likud party, who remain sceptical of the truce and of the prospects for ending the 33-month intifada.

Despite the new crisis, Mr Mofaz, a former army commander whose hardline instincts have begun to soften as the violence has abated, put a positive spin on the prospects. His talks with Mr Dahlan, he said, had been conducted in a "positive atmosphere" in which both sides appeared eager to make progress. And he acknowledged that the number of terrorism alerts had dropped significantly since the Palestinian Authority had regained control of Gaza and Bethlehem last week.

The two ministers plan to meet again this week. "I personally want to give this process a chance," Mr Mofaz said, "and I will make every effort to make it advance, but without endangering the security of the citizens of Israel."

After last week's conciliatory rhetoric, the two sides are now facing serious challenges. Abu Mazen, the Palestinian Prime Minister, needs a credible prisoner release if he is to win public support for peace negotiations. Mr Sharon needs practical steps by the Palestinian Authority to disarm the militias and to stem anti-Israeli incitement if he is to win over his own doubters. Both risk a mutiny in the ranks if they go too fast.

Saeb Erekat, a former senior Palestinian negotiator, called on the Americans and their European, Russian and United Nations partners - known as the Quartet - to save the "road-map" for peace they pressed on Israelis and Palestinians.

"Where did the Quartet disappear to?" he asked. "Why haven't the Americans intervened? Without that, the whole process is very fragile."

¿ The Israeli authorities charged 11 paramilitary border police with committing acts of violence and looting against Palestinians in the West Bank city of Hebron yesterday. The criminal charges were the latest in a series against members of a border police company that patrolled Hebron during the Palestinian uprising and drew frequent Palestinian complaints of abuse.

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