A small step forward on the long road to peace in the Middle East

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It is one of the minor oddities of the Middle East that, just occasionally, progress towards peace is made where it is least expected and, indeed, where it is not even scheduled. So it is with the release by the Israeli government of some 340 Palestinian "security prisoners" who have not been involved in fatal attacks on Israelis.

Such a move is not called for by the so-called road-map. It is a hopeful gesture, even though the comparatively small number of releases (out of a total of 6,000 held) may frustrate and antagonise some Palestinians. It does have the slight feel of tokenism about it rather than the sort of bold, confidence-building measure that the Israelis claim it to be.

However, it is hard not to feel some relief at the release of people who feel that they were being treated unjustly, and it is at least a start. That it serves as a useful piece of propaganda for Ariel Sharon's image abroad, especially in America, does not alter that. It was not politically possible for the Sharon government to release more prisoners. Mr Sharon has successfully defied his cabinet on a few occasions in the recent past, but there are limits to his ability to do this.

However, the lesson of other peace processes, and most notably the Irish example, is that a broad, comprehensive programme of prisoner releases can quickly become a central part of a peace process and can act as a catalyst in the task of defusing deeper-seated political issues. It is also true, however, that the victims of terrorism find it understandably difficult to accept such painful changes.

The obvious problem is that this small gesture is far outweighed by bigger factors, namely the other policies of the Sharon government and, for that matter, the uncertain intentions of pro-Palestinian terrorist organisations. Many will wonder what the point of talking about territorial change really is, when the Israeli government is happy to spend £1m per mile to build a concrete wall across the Occupied Territories, separating towns from their hinterlands and farmers from their land. Palestinians argue that the wall looks suspiciously like the precursor to a structure that will confine them to just 42 per cent of the West Bank.

Much the same goes for Mr Sharon's manifest reluctance to remove the unlawful Israeli settlements on the West Bank, something that is central to the progress of the road-map. So stubborn is Mr Sharon over the issue that he ignores the pleas of President Bush. Even when it comes to Palestinians living within the state of Israel, we find the Sharon government enacting the most inhumane and offensive measures to discourage Israelis from marrying Palestinians. Small wonder that Mr Sharon is faced so frequently with the charge of tokenism.

And yet the Israelis have every reason to point to the threatening noises emanating from groups such as Hizbollah and Hamas about renewing their terror campaigns. A high concrete wall to keep the suicide bombers out and the snipers at bay does not, in those circumstances, seem to be such an unhuman structure.

The point is that the road-map's process of building trust requires some trust between the sides to begin with, and there is a depressing lack of that at the moment. Making progress in a peace process such as that envisaged by the Middle East road-map can be compared to riding a bicycle; the faster it goes the more stable it is. Progress is agonisingly and dangerously slow; as ever, the Americans need to push things along a little more urgently.