(photo credit: AP)
The cabinet decision to approve the release of some 200 security prisoners faced wide-spread criticism on Sunday.
"Instead of adopting a resolute stance against terrorism, the Kadima-Labor government continues to release hundreds of prisoners in return for nothing," said opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu. The Likud would "replace weakness with an uncompromising aggressive policy toward terrorism," he said.
Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai warned that the cabinet's decision jeopardized the chances of freeing captures IDF soldier Gilad Schalit.
Israel Beiteinu MK Yisrael Hasson said "the government insists on 'fixing' the damage it causes by inflicting significantly more damage," and that "a government that had not given in to Hizbullah and Hamas demands in the past would not have to give in to Fatah today by releasing prisoners in return for nothing."
Other right-wing MKs also blasted the cabinet decision, tying it into their recurring theme of a "government at the end of its road." MK Eli Gabai (National Union-National Religious Party) expressed outrage at the decision, saying the government was "defying common sense and the trust of Israeli citizens."
"This government, which has reached the end of the road both physically and morally, is releasing the prisoners in exchange for nothing, continuing to jeopardize Israeli citizens' security time and again," Gabai said.
"The government should be reminded that the homes of the terrorists who carried out the tractor attacks in Jerusalem have yet to be destroyed, and they are already hurrying to release the next tractor drivers," he said.
Likud faction chairman MK Gideon Sa'ar said the decision "crushes the public's faith that murderers and terrorists will receive their due punishment, and will harm Israeli citizens' security and the efforts to release Gilad Schalit. One can only imagine how the 'free' release of more than 200 terrorists will impact the level of demands that Hamas will put forward."
Meir Indor and Dr. Aryeh Bachrach of the Almagor Terrorist Victims Association oppose the release and said Sunday that they would embark on a street campaign.
Indor took the Shas ministers to task for not taking a firm enough stance against the release and threatened to make it a campaign issue.
PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad welcomed the gesture, but said Israel should release even more prisoners.
"This is a positive step," said a senior PA official in Ramallah. "But we are continuing to insist that Israel must release all the Palestinian prisoners from its jails. This is the only way to move forward with the peace process."
Fayad, who met with Defense Minister Ehud Barak in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, renewed his demand that Israel release a large number of prisoners as a way of "strengthening" the PA and its supporters, the official in Ramallah said.
Hamas, however, described the cabinet decision as an attempt to deepen divisions among the Palestinians by supporting one party against the other.
Spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the decision was also aimed at creating the impression that Abbas had some achievements to show from his negotiations with Israel.
"Our people want to see all the prisoners released, and not only those belonging to Fatah," Abu Zuhri said. "Hamas wants the release of prisoners belonging to all the Palestinian factions. This is the basis on which we are trying to reach a prisoner exchange agreement [with Israel]."
Meanwhile, tensions between Hamas and Fatah are continuing to mount as each party continues to arrest supporters of the other. Hamas accused Abbas's security forces in the West Bank of arresting 17 of its supporters.
Among those arrested was Sheikh Muhammad Bari, a preacher from Kalkilya, and four men who were recently released from Israeli prisons.
The PA security forces also arrested Fuad al-Khafash, a human rights activist, a member of his family said Sunday.
The PA said Hamas's security forces in the Gaza Strip were targeting its supporters there and that dozens of Fatah men were still in Hamas prisons.
AP contributed to this report.