JERUSALEM (AFP) – Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was weighing a series of overtures, including freeing prisoners, towards the Palestinians following his first official meeting with president Mahmud Abbas.
A senior security official said Olmert and Defence Minister Amir Peretz were Monday to meet to discuss possible measures the Jewish state can effect “within days.”
The meeting would also be attended by Deputy Defence Minister Ephraim Sneh and chief of staff Dan Halutz, the official said.
Hopes for new peace talks after years of violence and a diplomatic standstill were raised following the Saturday summit, during which Olmert promised Abbas “immediate and concrete steps” to ease the humanitarian conditions of Palestinians.
“Defence Minister Peretz will present the prime minister with the defence establishment’s programme for measures aimed at easing the daily life of Palestinians,” the source told AFP.
These measures will include “the removal of some 27 roadblocks and barriers across the West Bank and the construction of road intersections” to reduce friction between Israelis and Palestinians, he said.
Palestinians traveling across the occupied West Bank are forced daily to go through dozens of checkpoints erected by the Israeli army in a bid to rein in militants.
During the meeting, Olmert will also weigh the release of “several Palestinian prisoners” held in Israel within the coming days.
Such a step would mark a shift in Israel’s policy of refusing to free prisoners before Israeli serviceman Gilad Shalit, who was seized by militants near the Gaza Strip in June and who is believed to be held by the Islamist Hamas, is released.
The source said Israel was also contemplating allowing the passage of goods through the northern Jordan valley into the Palestinian territory, which has been under massive economic strain since Israel and the west imposed an aid freeze when Hamas formed a government in March.
Under the programme, “which has been planned for several months,” Israel would also ease restrictions on West Bank Palestinians wishing to work inside the Jewish state and businesspeople entering the Palestinian territories.
These steps were seen as key to strengthening Abbas and his Fatah movement in their faceoff against the radical Hamas-led government.
Tension between the two factions boiled over into deadly armed clashes last week after the Palestinian president called for early elections.
Olmert said Sunday that his government would hold a meeting to discuss the release of prisoners as a measure of goodwill ahead of the Muslim feast of Eid Al-Adha, due to begin between December 31 and January 2 depending on the sighting of the moon.
Israel’s prison service was together with the Shin Beth internal security service drawing up a list of Palestinian prisoners, mostly women and minors, who could be released immediately, a senior official told AFP.
According to the Israeli prison service, around 8,800 Palestinians are being held in Israeli jails on security charges, including 300 minors and 100 women.
Several ministers, including Peretz, backed the measure. Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz said during Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting that “we have done this in the past and we should do it in a measured fashion if it strengthens Abu Mazen” (Abbas).
The government voted unanimously Sunday to transfer up to 100 million dollars in customs duties to the Abbas-led Palestinian Authority.
Israel has been withholding the money from the Palestinians since Hamas, which refuses to recognise Israel’s right to exist and to renounce violence, came to power.