Fri, Feb 11, 2005 - Page 1 News List

Sharon offers prisoner release for peaceful withdrawal

DEAL Thousands of Palestinians involved in deadly attacks might be freed, if only militants can hold their fire while Israel withdraws from the Gaza strip this summer


Israel's prime minister signaled in a newspaper interview yesterday that he is ready to release large numbers of Palestinian prisoners involved in deadly attacks -- a key Palestinian demand -- if militants hold their fire during Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip this summer.

Sharon said Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas stressed during their meeting earlier this week that the release of long-serving prisoners is a top priority. "He [Abbas] told me simply that it is a major problem," Sharon told the Haaretz daily.

In the past, Israel refused to release those involved in deadly attacks, though in recent days it has said it was willing to consider a few isolated cases.

The newspaper quoted Sharon as saying he told Abbas that if the Gaza withdrawal proceeds smoothly, he would release larger numbers of Palestinians involved in attacks. Israel is concerned that militants will fire on Israeli troops and Jewish settlers during the withdrawal to portray it as a retreat under fire.

Abbas has secured promises from the armed groups that they will observe a truce, and the Israeli and Palestinian leaders declared an end to hostilities at their summit.

However, the cease-fire remains fragile.

Early yesterday, Hamas militants said they fired 36 mortar shells and 20 homemade rockets at the Jewish settlements of Newe Dekalim and Gedid in the Gaza Strip. The barrage caused no damages or injuries.

Hamas said on its Web site that it fired the mortars in retaliation for the deaths of two Palestinians on Wednesday. One, a Hamas activist, was killed while handling explosives. The second, apparently a civilian, was shot dead by Israeli troops as he walked near a Jewish settlement in southern Gaza.

Abbas was heading to Gaza yesterday to try to cement the cease-fire in talks with militant leaders.

The leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Khaled Mashaal and Ramadan Shalah, have privately given their word to Egyptian mediators that a truce would be observed, though in public representatives of the militant groups have distanced themselves from Abbas' truce declaration.

Local gunmen have said they would respond with violence to any perceived Israeli violations.

Abbas and Sharon are to meet again by Tuesday, at Sharon's Sycamore Ranch in southern Israel.

Following this week's summit, Israel declared it would relax some restrictions on Palestinian movement.

The Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza was set to open yesterday, enabling some Palestinian laborers to return to jobs in Israel.

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