JERUSALEM, AP -The Palestinian Authority released two militants jailed in connection with a Tel Aviv suicide bombing, making a conciliatory gesture intended to ensure the Islamic Jihad militant group abides by the truce with Israel, Palestinian officials said Friday.
The release was part of a package of gestures that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas made to militant groups Thursday after days of renewed violence with Israel. Abbas also agreed to include Hamas and Islamic Jihad in preparations for Israel”s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip this summer.
Representatives of Hamas and Islamic Jihad agreed to honor the 4-month-old cease-fire, but warned they will strike at Israel if they feel they are attacked.
"The truce doesn”t mean taking strikes without responding," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Friday.
Israel has demanded Abbas crack down on militants, but the Palestinian leader has preferred to try to persuade the groups to refrain from violence.
The Palestinian Authority released Sadiq Odeh and Jasser Kob from a jail in Jericho late Thursday on condition they remain in that West Bank town. The two men were arrested — but never charged — in connection with the Feb. 25 bombing of the Stage nightclub in Tel Aviv that killed five Israelis.
Khader Adnan, an Islamic Jihad leader, demanded that Odeh and Kob be allowed to return home and called for the release of the eight other prisoners in Jericho who were detained after the bombing. The prisoners had staged two hunger strikes to protest their innocence.
A committee formed by Interior Minister Nasser Yousef reviewed the two men”s files and decided they were not involved in the attack, a Palestinian security official said. The committee might release more of the prisoners in the coming days, said the official, who agreed to discuss the sensitive matter only if he was not identified.
Israeli officials did not comment directly on the release, but reiterated their demand that Abbas crack down on the militants.
"The Palestinian Authority honoring its commitments in the fight against terrorism is a prerequisite for moving forward with the political dialogue," said Mark Regev, Israel”s Foreign Ministry spokesman.
Violence had erupted Tuesday when Palestinians conducted a series of rocket and mortar attacks on Israeli targets that killed three non-Israeli laborers, and Israel staged an arrest raid in the West Bank that killed two Palestinians, including a top Islamic Jihad leader.
Meanwhile, the anti-Israeli militant group Al-Aqsa Martyrs” Brigades carried out training exercises in Gaza City Friday. Media members watched as black-clad fighters from the militia — linked to the Palestinians” ruling Fatah movement — practiced launching homemade missiles and infiltration and raiding techniques.
Despite the flare-up in violence, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Palestinian Cabinet Minister Mohammed Dahlan met Friday to discuss cooperation on the Gaza pullout, Israel Radio reported. After the meeting Mofaz called Abbas to update him on the meeting.
Meanwhile, Avi Dichter, who ended his term as head of Israel”s Shin Bet security service last month, warned that Jewish extremists trying to derail the Gaza pullout could shoot at troops or try to assassinate Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
In a series of interviews published in Israeli newspapers Friday, Dichter warned that a Gaza hotel, where many of the extremists have holed up, could be the final stronghold of resistance to the evacuation.
"Suicide attacks are not limited to the Palestinians. There can be Jewish suicide attackers. Their first target is the prime minister," Dichter told Yediot Ahronot. "We have no experience dealing with such extremists."
An opinion poll published Friday in Yediot said Israeli support for the Gaza withdrawal has dropped to 53 percent from a high of 69 percent in February. Opposition to the plan has risen from 27 percent to 38 percent, according to the poll of 501 people, which had a margin of error of more than four percentage points.