Tue, Feb 22, 2005 - Page 6 News List

500 Palestinian prisoners freed

OLIVE BRANCH The latest goodwill gesture joined similar recent moves, and came after a vote approving a pullout from Gaza and some West Bank settlements


Israel freed 500 Palestinian prisoners in a good-will gesture yesterday, a day after the government gave final approval to a pullout from Gaza and a revised route of the West Bank separation barrier that would encompass at least 6 percent of land claimed by the Palestinians for a future state.

With the historic Cabinet vote, Israel began charting its final borders, bypassing negotiations and angering the Palestinians. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the decision to leave Gaza and four settlements in the northern West Bank was the hardest he ever made, but would ensure a better future for Israel.

Sharon signed an order saying Israeli civilians would have to leave the areas slated for evacuation by July 20. Those remaining would be removed by force over a period of two months. Settler leaders have pledged not to leave voluntarily, and security officials are bracing for violent confrontations.

In the West Bank,Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas won the backing of his Fatah movement for a new 24-member Cabinet after a stormy debate, clearing the way for approval of the new ministers by parliament later yesterday.

The release of Palestinian prisoners was one of the gestures Sharon agreed to at his summit with Abbas earlier this month in Egypt. Convoys of buses carrying shackled inmates left Israel's desert prison camp of Ketziot around dawn Monday, heading for five drop-off points on the edges of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, military officials said. Those freed had not been involved in attacks on Israelis.

Israel has promised to release another 400 prisoners within the next three months. A joint Israeli-Palestinian ministerial committee will decide which prisoners will be released in the second round. Israel is resisting Palestinian demands to free those serving long terms, including for attacks on Israelis.

With Sunday's Cabinet vote, an Israeli government agreed for the first time since capturing the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Mideast war to dismantle some of the dozens of Jewish settlements it has built there.

However, in approving the route of the West Bank barrier, Israel acted unilaterally on what was to be a key issue in peace talks with the Palestinians, and signaled it will keep a chunk of prime West Bank land close to Jerusalem, including two large Jewish settlement blocs, Maaleh Adumim and Gush Etzion.

Several Cabinet ministers acknowledged that while the barrier was ostensibly built as a security shield, its route would help determine Israel's final borders with a Palestinian state. Sharon has said he wants to keep large West Bank settlement blocs in any future peace deal with the Palestinians.

Abbas has demanded that construction of the barrier be stopped.

Sharon, a former settler patron and the key proponent of Jewish settlement expansion during most of his political career, said leaving Gaza and parts of the West Bank was difficult. ``In all my years of service I have faced hundreds, if not thousands of decisions, some of them matters of life or death, but the decision on the disengagement plan was for me the hardest of all,'' he said late Sunday.

The Gaza withdrawal won approval from 17 Cabinet ministers, including eight from the moderate Labor Party. Five ministers from Sharon's ruling Likud Party, led by Sharon rival Benjamin Netanyahu, voted against the plan.

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