Cabinet approves release of some 200 Palestinian prisoners

List includes 2 inmates classified as having "blood on their hands"; Yishai warns decision jeopardizes chances of freeing Schalit.

Prisoners 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Prisoners 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The cabinet gave the green light Sunday morning to the release of some 200 Palestinian security prisoners as a goodwill gesture to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The move, proposed by a ministerial committee headed by Vice Premier Haim Ramon, was approved in principle by 16 votes to four. The three Shas ministers and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz opposed the plan. On Monday, the committee is set to convene to finalize the list of detainees scheduled to be set free. The list includes two prisoners classified by Israel as having "blood on their hands," meaning prisoners who participated in terrorist attacks resulting in Israeli fatalities. One of them murdered an Israeli, while the other dispatched others to perpetrate an attack. The two prisoners have already served 30 years in jail. The target date for the prisoner release is next Monday, just before US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due to return to the region to assess the state of the final status peace talks. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni justified her support for the release. "When Israel releases prisoners only to groups that exert force, it sends out the message that it gives in to pressure and that the use of violence and kidnapping are [effective] ways of acting against Israel," she explained during the cabinet meeting. Livni added that while releasing prisoners only to Hamas strengthened the terror organization, releasing prisoners to pragmatic political players would strengthen them and prove that dialog with Israel produces results. Opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu and Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai criticized the cabinet's decision. Netanyahu said that "instead of adopting a resolute stance against terror, the Kadima government continues to release hundreds of prisoners in return for nothing." He said the Likud would "replace weakness with an uncompromising aggressive policy towards terrorism." Yishai warned that the cabinet's decision jeopardized the chances of freeing captive IDF soldier St.-Sgt. Gilad Schalit. Israel Beitenu MK Israel Hasson said that "the government insists on 'fixing' the damage it causes by inflicting significantly more damage," adding that "a government that would not have 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." MK Eliyahu Gabai (NU-NRP) was outraged at the decision, saying that 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. Mark Regev, spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office, said over the weekend that the move was designed to show the Palestinians and the Arab world that the path of dialogue and moderation would bring about the most tangible results. "If we compare what Abu Mazen [Abbas] will get in two weeks, what Hizbullah got [in the recent prisoner swap] looks minuscule," he said. On Sunday, Terror Victims Organization "Almagor" criticized the government's decision. "The government's gesture to Abbas takes us back to the Oslo days, during which more than 1,400 were killed and hundreds were wounded by released terrorists," the organization said in a statement. Meir Indor and Dr. Aryeh Bachrach, who head Almagor, announced they would work to ensure that the release of security prisoners becomes a major issue in the next elections, even within the ultra-orthodox community. The organization said it would present photos of people killed by released Palestinian prisoners in a street campaign in the next few days. The question of a prisoner release first came up at the talks in Paris between Olmert and Abbas a month ago. It was decided that the gesture to Abbas would be more significant than the number of prisoners being set free as part of the prisoner swap with Hizbullah. Further details were discussed when Olmert and Abbas met in Jerusalem earlier this month. The prisoner release was also on the agenda at talks last night between Defense Minister Ehud Barak and PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad. Barak hosted Fayad at his Tel Aviv home and promised that Israel would continue to work to ensure the success of Palestinian efforts to assume security control in Jenin, and extend the Jenin model to other West Bank cities. Barak stressed the importance of effective Palestinian measures to combat terrorism, and vowed that Israel would continue to support projects to boost the Palestinian economy in the West Bank, which he described as "the key to progress in the peace process." The two men also reviewed steps taken in recent months by Israel as part of efforts to ease the day to day life of Palestinians, such as the removal of roadblocks and military checkpoints and the granting of additional work permits. Yaakov Lappin contributed to this report