Israel took a step toward meeting a key Palestinian demand and agreed Sunday to release some of the 5,000 prisoners it holds, but Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the move will be limited and conditioned on the Palestinians cracking down on militant groups that have carried out attacks.
The release aims at strengthening the rule of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who has pledged to back the US-backed "road map" peace plan.
A top Palestinian official, however, expressed disappointment at the limited release. Radical groups, whose members are not slated for release, immediately condemned it.
The US and Israel are strongly backing Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, as an alternative to Yasser Arafat and as a Palestinian leader they feel can crack down against radical groups and help bring peace.
"All professional assessments which were submitted to Prime Minister Sharon indicated that releasing prisoners is likely to significantly contribute to the strengthening of Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Mazen, with whom we are negotiating," Israel's Cabinet said in a statement. "A strong Palestinian administration will be able to act more effectively against terror, and therefore, Israel has a strong interest."
The Cabinet decision Sunday calls for the release of prisoners excluding members of militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad that oppose peace with Israel and Palestinians who carried out or planned violent attacks against Israelis.
It was not clear how many prisoners would be released, but earlier Sunday Sharon met with Avi Dichter, the head of the Shin Bet security service, who presented him with a list of several hundred prisoners slated for release. Israel's Channel 2 TV said 400 would be released.
In Israel, the arrest of militants has been credited with helping to reduce terror attacks, and the vote in the Cabinet was controversial. The ministers first deadlocked 10 to 10 and only confirmed the measure by a 13 to 9 vote after the Cabinet agreed to set up a committee that would monitor Palestinian compliance with the US-backed road map, Tourism Minister Benny Elon said.
"The release would be carried out in tightly supervised, small and measured doses in relation to proven Palestinian actions in the security sphere; in other words, if terror continues and there is no genuine Palestinian effort to fight and eliminate it, the releases will stop," Sharon said after the Cabinet meeting.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said that releases will not begin immediately.
"I think that it will take some time before the committee convenes and makes decisions," Mofaz said at a press conference.
Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan said he was disappointed that the release was so limited.
"We have discussed with the Israelis our disappointment after Israel's selective policy of releasing prisoners," Dahlan said after meeting with Mofaz.
Most of the prisoners who will be released will be people who have been detained without trial and have only a few months to serve, people under the age of 18 or over 60 or women, an Israeli official said.
Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Amr said the Palestinian Authority will "continue working for the release of all prisoners regardless of their political affiliations."
In Gaza City, some 1,200 people marched through the streets Sunday, carrying pictures of family members in Israeli jails and chanting "No peace without the release of all detainees."