assam rockets scuttle Id al-Adha prisoner release

Abbas says Olmert broke a promise to let inmates go

The continued firing of Kassam rockets on the western Negev was the major reason Israel decided against releasing a symbolic number of Palestinian prisoners before the Muslim festival of Id al-Adha that began on Saturday, senior sources in the Prime Minister's Office said after nightfall. The sources said other considerations militating against the release were concern that freeing a couple of dozen prisoners, none of them the "heavyweight" security prisoners, would not have done anything to bolster PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas on the Palestinian street, and the realization that contrary to what is generally believed, Israel has not "automatically" released prisoners before the holiday in the past. Abbas, according to Israeli sources, brought up the idea of a symbolic release in last Saturday night's meeting with Olmert, saying that it was traditional for Israel to free prisoners before the holiday. Olmert, according to the officials, was noncommittal, saying he would bring up the possibility with the cabinet and consider the issue. Olmert did not express an opinion at last Sunday's cabinet meeting, instead asking Defense Minister Amir Peretz, Vice Premier Shimon Peres and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz for their opinions. All of them favored a release. A meeting with security officials was scheduled on Thursday to discuss the issue, but never took place, and a line that was written into the text of a speech Olmert gave on Thursday, saying the cabinet had accepted the prime minister's recommendation to release a symbolic number of prisoners, was not delivered. Officials in the Prime Minister's Office said that as early as Tuesday, when the Kassam rockets continued to fall despite the Gaza cease-fire, the feeling in Olmert's bureau was that such a prisoner release would send the wrong signal. The officials denied that the failure to release prisoners had anything to do with new developments in attempts to free Cpl. Gilad Shalit. The officials also said that after looking into the matter it had became clear the last time such a release occurred before Id al-Adha was in 1991. Abbas, who traveled to the Gaza Strip on Saturday for the first time since the outbreak of deadly Hamas-Fatah factional violence earlier this month, accused Olmert of breaking a promise to release prisoners ahead of the holiday. "Unfortunately, this didn't happen, and we hope that he will fulfill his promise after the holiday," Abbas told reporters. Israeli officials said Olmert never made any commitment, telling Abbas only that he would look into the matter. Abbas aide Saeb Erekat said the refusal to release prisoners was probably due to Olmert's reluctance to buck Israeli public opinion by releasing any of the 8,000 Palestinian prisoners until Shalit was released. "It's unfortunate," Erekat said, adding that the decision would hurt Abbas's domestic standing. One of the Hamas-linked groups holding Shalit said on Thursday that progress had been made toward a prisoner exchange, and media quoted PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas as saying Shalit would be released soon. But neither said when a swap might take place, and previous claims of progress have not panned out. Shalit's father, Noam, who has been critical of the government's efforts to free his son, said he supported a pre-holiday prisoner release. "I thought it might generate some positive momentum toward a final deal to free Gilad and other prisoners," he told Israel Radio. Shalit's parents also published an open letter to their son Friday in Arabic in the PA's Jerusalem daily, Al-Quds. "We will do everything so that your release and that of the Palestinian prisoners will take place soon," the letter said. "We hope the men of the Palestinian organization are generous enough to show you this letter from your parents, just as we hope that Israeli authorities treat the Palestinian prisoners well and allow them to receive and send letters to their parents." AP contributed to this report.•