The Israeli Cabinet met yesterday and approved the release of 250 Palestinian prisoners, officials said, in its latest gesture of support for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed to the prisoner release two weeks ago during a meeting with Abbas, part of an Israeli strategy to bolster the Palestinian leader in his standoff against the Hamas militant group. The release has been put on hold while Israel finalizes the list of prisoners.
Cabinet participants, speaking on condition of anonymity because the meeting was still going on, said the release was approved by a wide margin. But they said Israel still has not decided on the names of the prisoners to be released. Israel is holding some 10,000 Palestinian prisoners.
"I think this is a worthy gesture to make ... because we want to use any means that can to reinforce moderate elements in the Palestinian Authority," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the Cabinet in broadcast remarks.
A final release roster will be put together by a committee. Once the list is approved, it could still take days before any prisoners are freed since Israel would allow 48 hours for the releases to be challenged in petitions to the Supreme Court.
Previous prisoner releases have raised opposition from groups representing families of Israelis harmed in Palestinian attacks. Palestinians regard prisoners held by Israel as heroes of what they call resistance against occupation.
The US and EU have been prodding Olmert to nurture contacts with Abbas's emergency government in the hope of resuming long-stalled peace talks.
Olmert told the cabinet that bolstering Palestinian moderates could "encourage them to move in the direction we believe can create conditions for the start of substantial dialogue."
In a goodwill gesture last week, Israel released Palestinian tax funds it had frozen a year ago when Hamas rose to power, a move that helped enable Abbas to pay Palestinian civil servants full salaries for the first time in 17 months.
Hamas, which has rejected Western demands to recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept existing Israeli-Palestinian interim peace accords took over the Gaza Strip last month after routing Fatah in factional fighting.