In an effort to bolster Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the face of a potential mass prisoner swap with Hamas, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) "pardoned" over 90 wanted Fatah militiamen on Thursday on condition they refrain from engaging in terrorist activity.
Under the deal, the 92 fugitives - all members of Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigades, Fatah's military wing - will be allowed to move freely throughout Palestinian cities within Area A of the West Bank. One of the fugitives included in the deal is Ala Sankara, who was the Al-Aksa commander in the Balata refugee camp near Nablus.
In 2007, the Shin Bet signed an amnesty deal with over 150 wanted Palestinian terror suspects, offering them a chance to avoid arrest by handing in their weapons and refraining from terrorist activity. The Shin Bet has continued to offer the deal to dozens of other Palestinian terror suspects - all affiliated with Fatah - and eventually will consider allowing them to join the official Palestinian security forces.
Defense officials said that the amnesty deal was part of Israeli efforts to bolster Abbas ahead of a potential swap with Hamas in which over 1,000 prisoners would be released in exchange for Gilad Schalit.
Israel is concerned that a massive prisoner deal with Hamas would undermine Abbas and boost Hamas's popularity on the Palestinian street ahead of general elections.
Israel is planning several wide-ranging gestures to Abbas. On Wednesday, the IDF announced that it was removing 50 dirt roadblocks in the West Bank, including one on the Jenin-Tulkarm road, one of the main arteries for Palestinians.
Meanwhile, Channel 2 reported Thursday night that there had been a number of adjustments to the pending Schalit deal. According to accounts of Israel's offer as detailed Hamas officials, Israel wants to switch some of the prisoners Hamas has demanded be released for other prisoners. Israel would also release prisoners serving multiple life sentences only 3-10 years after the main exchange takes place, and deport them out of the area altogether. Other terrorists who had lived in the West Bank would be deported to the Gaza Strip, Channel 2 reported.
Hamas has reportedly responded to the offer by demanding that prisoners only be deported in extraordinary cases and with their consent. Hamas has also reiterated its demand to include in the releases former Fatah Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) secretary-general Ahmed Sa'adat, as well as several prisoners of Jordanian and Syrian descent. It has not responded to Israel's condition that the release of some prisoners be delayed.
Earlier Thursday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Schalit should be freed in a "feasible and appropriate way, but not at any price."
"Hamas is discussing the proposal and we're holding talks," he told Israel Radio. "We hope a deal will ensue, but I can't say whether it will really happen or not, and if so, when."
The defense minister explained how he might back a deal in which Schalit would be exchanged for hundreds of Hamas terrorists, while at the same time objecting to negotiating with kidnappers. Regulated principles for conduct in such instances have only recently begun to be consolidated, he said, based on recommendations by an expert committee.
"Israel is on a slippery slope. This descent must be stopped, but not at the expense of a person who is already in Hamas captivity," he told the radio station. "A year ago I appointed a commissionâ€¦ to recommend principles and processes regarding captives and prisoners of warâ€¦ Incidentally, they are not the same," he said of the two categories.
"With prisoners of war, the rule is: all of our prisoners in return for all of the enemy's, even if we have 3,000 and they have three. With captives, since kidnapping is quite easy, it can turn into a method to extort the State of Israel, and we are being led down this slippery slopeâ€¦ Other [Western] countries don't negotiate with abductors, and the number of kidnappings is dropping," Barak pointed out.
"But as for Schalit, my position is that you don't change a 20-year process while you have a soldier in captivity."
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