JERUSALEM (AFP) – Israel’s cabinet voted on Sunday to release some 200 Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture to president Mahmud Abbas, in a bid to bolster slow-moving US-backed peace talks.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s spokesman Mark Regev called the move a “confidence-building measure” towards Abbas, saying “we hope the release will help strengthen the peace process.”
A senior government official told AFP that the list, which will be considered for final approval by a ministerial committee on Monday, includes two veteran prisoners implicated in deadly attacks on Israelis in the 1970s.
The two are an exception to Israel’s general long-standing refusal to release those with “blood on their hands,” but the official said the security establishment “believes the risk of the release is very low.”
Israel had first announced the move on August 6 following a face-to-face meeting between Olmert and Abbas, the latest in a series of discussions held since they relaunched peace talks at a US-hosted conference in November.
Once the ministerial committee approves the decision, Israelis will have several days to appeal against the release of individual prisoners before the actual release takes place on August 25.
There are currently more than 11,000 Palestinians jailed in Israel, including at least 85 women and children, and 11 seriously ill people, according to the Palestinian Authority.
The gesture is widely seen as a way of boosting Abbas against the rival Palestinian Islamist Hamas movement, which rules the Gaza Strip, and the Lebanese Hezbollah Shiite militia.
“I prefer to release Palestinian prisoners to president Mahmud Abbas and prime minister Salam Fayyad than to Hamas,” Housing Minister Zeev Boim told AFP shortly before voting for the move.
In July Hezbollah celebrated what it called a major victory when it traded the bodies of two Israeli soldiers for five Lebanese prisoners and the remains of some 200 Lebanese and Palestinian fighters.
Hamas has been trying to secure a similar deal to swap Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, seized in a deadly cross-border raid from the Gaza Strip in June 2006, for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.
Sunday’s move drew criticism from some leaders who feared it would undermine efforts to free Shalit.
“This is a wrong decision. It’s outrageous because it reduces the chances of bringing Gilad Shalit home,” Trade and Industry Minister Eli Yishai told AFP.
The senior government official insisted, however, that none of those set to be freed was included in the list of prisoners Hamas demands to be released and that the move would not undermine efforts to recover Shalit.