Rabin 'may release prisoners'

The Palestinian peace team is to step up demands for the early release of political prisoners and an end to curfews, deportations and censorship in the occupied territories as soon as the new Labour leader, Yitzhak Rabin, takes over as Israel's Prime Minister.

Labour is carefully guarding its strategy for the new round of talks, which Palestinians hope will start this month, until the new coalition government is agreed; an announcement on this is expected next Monday. But sources close to Mr Rabin said yesterday that the Labour leader would consider the release of some political prisoners, and other humanitarian gestures if they would contribute to 'improving the atmosphere' in the occupied territories. Although it may be hard for a former hardline defence minister to roll back the apparatus of military rule, Mr Rabin, who wants to see elections in the occupied territories in six to 12 months, is 'keen to find ways of proving his bona fides'.

Liberal voices in Mr Rabin's coalition are also calling for an end to draconian occupation laws. They predict that Mr Rabin will make early concessions in this area in order to win international approval and defuse opposition to the talks in the occupied territories. 'All the signs are that Mr Rabin will want to move forward fast once his government is formed,' said Dedi Zucker, a leading member of the left-wing Meretz party, which won 12 seats in the general election and is sure to be included in the coalition government.

Mr Zucker added: 'A sure way to win the confidence of the Palestinians would be to start releasing political prisoners. There is already consensus in the Labour party that measures can be taken which do not threaten security. Meretz will be pressing for it. I believe we will see movement on this within weeks.'

The Palestinian delegation believes that concessions on human rights in the occupied territories must be made early in the new round of talks if ordinary Palestinians are to be convinced that the negotiations should be pursued. No other realistic concessions would so swiftly puncture the propaganda of radical groups in the occupied territories, which may be seeking to sabotage the talks by stirring up violence. There are currently 12,500 Palestinians detained on 'intifada-related' charges, of whom 450 are held without charge or trial.

'The opposition to the talks from within the occupied territories will only be overcome if we are able to demonstrate to the people tangible gains,' said Sarin Nusseibeh, the head of the Palestinian delegation's technical team. Furthermore, the Palestinians argue that Mr Rabin's commitment to allowing a degree of Palestinian self-rule and autonomy is entirely inconsistent with continuing occupation laws which, among other things, prohibit political meetings, permit summary arrest and detention and impose stifling press censorship.

The release of prisoners and other human rights demands have started to assume almost equal importance to the other main Palestinian demand: a freeze on Jewish settlements. This is because it is widely felt that Mr Rabin has taken the sting out of the settlements issue by offering to curtail much of the construction work.

Since the election of Mr Rabin, the Palestinian camp has found itself under more pressure to prove its worth to its own people than ever before. Furthermore, the US is expected to take the Israeli side far more readily than under the Likud leader, Yitzhak Shamir, and will put pressure on the Palestinians to be flexible.

The Palestinian delegates and advisers, who are largely professionals and academics with no administrative back-up, are becoming more fearful for their own safety at the hands of peace saboteurs among both Palestinians and Jewish settlers. At the start of the talks the Palestinian delegation will call for UN protection.

It emerged this week that Mr Rabin is to set up his own US-style national security council, staffed by professional diplomats and advisers, to draw up Israel's proposals on the peace talks.

They are expected to present highly detailed plans to the Palestinians on every issue relating to autonomy. The Palestinians say they will be able to respond with their own detailed working papers.

RAFAH, Gaza Strip (Reuter) - More than 1,000 Palestinian activists fought with fists, clubs and guns in Rafah refugee camp yesterday, witnesses said. Israeli security sources said eight were shot and wounded and 20 hurt by beatings in the clash between supporters of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, and Fatah, the mainstream faction of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

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