Palestinian prisoner 22.
(photo credit: AP)
Four cabinet ministers will meet Monday to discuss the criteria and names of Palestinian prisoners whom Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has promised Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas he will release by the end of the month.
Vice Premier Haim Ramon will head this committee, which also includes Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter, Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann, and Minister without Portfolio Ami Ayalon. The names for release will then be brought to the cabinet at a later date for final approval. Palestinian reports suggest that 150 releases are being considered.
Dichter, at a scholarship ceremony for Druse students at the University of Haifa, said that the prisoners to be released as a "goodwill gesture" to Abbas are not the prisoners who were expected to be released in a deal with Hamas fro the return of kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit. Dichter said the "parameters" and "numbers" to be involved in the Schalit deal would be different.
"We are holding discussions and making gestures to the Palestinian Authority," Dichter said, adding that "if this is effective, we will make other gestures in the future."
Even though Abbas asked Olmert at their meeting Wednesday to release Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti and Ahmed Saadat, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who was behind the assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi, Dichter made clear he was opposed to their release, saying that convicted murderers would continue to serve their time in prison.
Pensioners Minister Rafi Eitan told Israel Radio that the release of prisoners to Abbas could make Hamas more flexible in its negotiations over Schalit. According to Eitan, when Gaza residents see the West Bank Palestinians celebrating the return of their relatives, they will pressure Hamas to bring about the release of their relatives as well.
Meanwhile, Amos Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry's Diplomatic-Security Bureau, flew to Cairo on Thursday for talks with senior Egyptian officials including intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, for the first high-level meeting in Egypt in recent weeks to try and jumpstart negotiations for Schalit's release.
Gilad also discussed the weapons smuggling from Egypt into Gaza, which has continued despite the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.
Last Sunday, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Yuval Diskin told the cabinet that the Egyptians were not doing much more to stop the smuggling now than they had done before the cease-fire. He said that the smuggling of arms from Sinai continued and that some four tons of explosives as well as 50 anti-tank missiles and dozens of light arms had been smuggled into Gaza since the cease-fire went into effect.
Meanwhile Thursday, a senior Egyptian security official said police had discovered 20 underground tunnels and seized thousands of gallons of fuel being smuggled under the Egypt-Gaza border. He said four smugglers were arrested early Thursday after a heavy exchange of gunfire with Egyptian forces. Three of the suspects and one policeman were wounded.
The official says the suspects were laying an 800-meter underground pipeline to ship fuel illegally into Gaza. He said the tunnels were uncovered over the past week.
AP contributed to this report.