JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israel’s cabinet agreed on Sunday to release 250 Palestinian prisoners in the latest attempt to strengthen Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after Hamas’s seizure of the Gaza Strip.
“I think this is a worthy gesture to make … because we want to use any means that can reinforce moderate elements in the Palestinian Authority,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the cabinet in broadcast remarks.
Olmert had pledged to free prisoners of Abbas’s Fatah movement in a June 25 summit with the Palestinian leader as part of a Western campaign to bolster the new administration he named after sacking a unity government with Hamas Islamists.
A government official said the cabinet voted 18 to 6 in favor of a motion to release 250 prisoners.
A final release roster will be put together by a committee. Once the Israeli list is approved, it could still take days before 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.
Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Abbas, welcomed the Israeli decision but urged it to draw up the list of those to be freed in coordination with the Palestinians.
“The prisoner issue needs more than gestures to be resolved, however, we welcome the release of prisoners any time,” he said.
Officials estimate there are at least 10,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said “all Palestinian male and women detainees have the right to be freed.” He said the release of only Fatah-affiliated prisoners was part of an attempt by Abbas to “reinforce the principle of separation” with Hamas.
The United States and European Union 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 recognise Israel, renounce violence and accept existing Israeli-Palestinian interim peace accords took over the Gaza Strip last month after routing Fatah in factional fighting.