429 Palestinians to be freed Monday

Decision made before Annapolis; Sources: Release delayed because Abbas wanted to be present.

Palestinian prisoners  (photo credit: AP)
Palestinian prisoners
(photo credit: AP)
The release of 429 Palestinian security prisoners is due to take place Monday morning. The move was approved by the cabinet before the Annapolis conference as a gesture to boost the standing of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Sources in Jerusalem said the release was delayed at the request of the Palestinians because Abbas wanted to be here when the detainees were freed. According to the Israel Prisons Service's operational plan, dubbed Operation Fall Leaves, the prisoners will be collected at the Ketziot Prison in the western Negev, where they will undergo medical examinations, identity confirmation, and sign a statement promising to abstain from terror-related activity. According to the plan, all but 16 of the prisoners will then be loaded on to buses and transported by the IPS's elite Nachshon prisoner transport unit to the Beituniya checkpoint, southwest of Ramallah. The remaining 16, due to be returned to the Gaza Strip, will be transferred a much shorter distance to the Erez checkpoint. The prisoner release follows last week's Annapolis conference and comes as diplomatic efforts are now focused on the formal launch of final status negotiations, set to begin December 12. Officials said they expected the Israeli and Palestinian steering committees to convene in Jerusalem for the start of the talks, which will cover core issues such as the borders of a future Palestinian state, the future of Israeli settlements, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees. This week, preliminary planning meetings will take place between officials from the Prime Minister's Office and the Foreign, Defense and Justice Ministries to coordinate Israeli strategy ahead of the final status negotiations. Later this month, the EU will host a donors conference in Paris to boost financial support for the Palestinian Authority. Israel is still considering the possibility of attending a follow-up meeting to Annapolis. Moscow is eager to host such a gathering next year, but Israeli officials have stressed it is still too early to decide on a follow-up meeting and all efforts are currently focused on the final status talks. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni will brief the weekly cabinet meeting on the outcome of the Annapolis conference. Meanwhile, officials in Jerusalem welcomed Washington's decision over the weekend to withdraw a draft UN resolution endorsing the decisions reached at Annapolis. Officials explained that while Israel had no problems with the text of the draft resolution, there was concern that a formal resolution might prompt greater UN involvement in Middle East peace efforts. Rebecca Anna Stoil contributed to this article.