A group representing Israeli victims of Palestinian violence was mounting a court challenge against the planned release tomorrow of 256 prisoners, and a Palestinian Cabinet minister criticized the gesture as inadequate.
Israeli Cabinet ministers on Tuesday approved the list of Palestinian prisoners to be freed in a gesture of support for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
In a separate development, Israel on Tuesday freed Nasser Shaer of Hamas, the education minister in the Cabinet dismissed by Abbas after the Gaza takeover. Shaer was arrested in May and held in administrative detention, which is imprisonment without trial.
Shaer told reporters his release was unconditional, though the Israelis made it clear they "do not welcome any prohibited or political action, whether regional or international. In any case, we do not represent certain factions, we represent our people."
The military said that he was released after he signed a statement renouncing membership in Hamas and pledging not to hold positions in the Palestinian Authority on behalf of Hamas or "any other illegal organization."
Most of the 256 to be freed tomorrow are members of Abbas' Fatah movement, which is locked in a power struggle with Hamas. None are from Hamas.
Prominent among the prisoners is Abdel Rahim Malouh, second in command of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which carried out the assassination of Israeli Cabinet minister Rehavam Zeevi in 2001.
Malouh, who is about 60 years old, is said to be ill. He was arrested in 2003. A member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee, he is considered close to Abbas and could serve as a mediator with Hamas.
Olmert's office said none of the 256, including six women, were directly involved in carrying out attacks against Israelis.
Hawkish Israeli groups were planning to try to stop the release. Almagor, representing families of victims of terrorist attacks, said that it would appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court to stop it. On its Web site, Almagor said that 179 Israelis have been killed since 2000 by Palestinians freed in previous deals. Appeals against previous prisoner releases have had little effect.
Israeli Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, a former head of the Shin Bet internal security service, supported the release.
"This is certainly an acceptable risk Israel is taking in order to strengthen the regime of Abu Mazen," he said after touring a prison in Israel's southern Negev Desert, where some of the Palestinian prisoners are being held.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat carefully praised the release, saying freedom for any Palestinian prisoners is welcome, but he urged Israel to free more of them. Israel holds about 10,500 Palestinian prisoners.
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