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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi expressed opposition Monday to the cabinet decision to release Palestinian security prisoners to the Gaza Strip as a goodwill gesture ahead of the Annapolis peace summit set for next week.
IDF sources said that Ashkenazi's opposition was not to the entire release of prisoners, but to the release of 16 Fatah detainees destined to return to their homes in the Gaza Strip. In total, the cabinet approved the release of 441 prisoners from Israeli prisons ahead of the summit.
A high-ranking IDF officer said that since Hamas was in control of Gaza and not Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the release of prisoners to Gaza would not strengthen Abbas.
"If the move is being done to strengthen Abbas, how does it do that if he doesn't control the Gaza Strip?" the officer asked, adding that Ashkenazi's opposition was also based on a recent cabinet decision to declare the Gaza Strip a "hostile entity."
"If Gaza is an enemy state, why are we releasing prisoners there?" the officer asked.
Ashkenazi did not voice his opposition during the cabinet meeting, but had expressed it in a letter he wrote last week to Defense Minister Ehud Barak. He also expressed his opinion in private conversations with several ministers moments before the cabinet convened. In response, Barak decided to exempt Ashkenazi from signing on the release forms.
Two months ago, Ashkenazi also wrote a letter to Barak ahead of a prisoner release, claiming that it was unethical to release detainees to the Gaza Strip while Cpl. Gilad Schalit was still being held there.
The vote to release the prisoners was 15-6, with Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz joining the Shas and Israel Beiteinu ministers against the deal.
"The prisoner issue for Palestinian society is central and very important," the resolution on the prisoner issue brought to the ministers read. "By releasing Palestinian prisoners, the government of Israel is interested in making clear that it realizes the importance of this issue, and illustrates that it is possible to free Palestinian prisoners through dialogue and not by violence or kidnapping soldiers."
The ministers were told the release was meant to push forward the diplomatic process with the Palestinians and was intended to "strengthen the connection" with Abbas and PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad.
The 441 prisoners to be released do not have "blood on their hands," and are not members of Hamas or Islamic Jihad.
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