Fatah prisoner release stumps Israel

Exclusive: Israel having trouble finding 250 prisoners not involved in terror.

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
The difficulty in finding 250 Fatah security prisoners who have been in jail for a long time but do not have "blood on their hands" is the reason the cabinet was not asked Sunday to approve the prisoner release Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced last week at the Sharm e-Sheikh summit, The Jerusalem Post has learned. Government sources said that while the issue was not brought up at Sunday's cabinet meeting, it will come up for a vote next week. The Post has learned that last Tuesday, the day after Olmert's return from Sharm, where he announced his intention to bring the release of 250 Fatah prisoners "without blood on their hands" to the cabinet, the country's security services began going through the list of nearly 10,000 Palestinians held in Israeli jails to see who fit the criteria Olmert spelled out. It is hoped they might play a leadership role in Fatah, and serve as a "goodwill gesture" to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. It became apparent that in order to release 250 prisoners, it would be necessary to either release "minor" Fatah prisoners who were convicted for crimes such as car theft, or to change the criteria Olmert spelled out at Sharm - that no one with "blood on their hands" be released. Releasing minor prisoners would not strengthen Abbas on the Palestinian street and could be "counterproductive," while changing the criteria could cause Olmert coalition difficulties. As a result, the security agencies are continuing to comb through the prisoners' lists, and Olmert is beginning to prepare the ground for possibly relaxing the "blood on their hands" criteria. To do this, Olmert will have to convince the "security minded" ministers in Kadima who might opposes such a move, such as Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz and Public Security Minister Avi Dichter. Olmert met with Dichter following Sunday's cabinet meeting. While the cabinet did not discuss the 250 prisoners, it did vote 16-4 to release four Jordanian prisoners who killed two IDF soldiers in 1990. Three Shas cabinet members - Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai, Communications Minister Ariel Attias and Minister-without-Portfolio Yitzhak Cohen - as well as Tourism Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch of Israel Beiteinu, voted against. Cabinet sources said Israel has assurances from the Jordanians that the four terrorists would serve an additional 18 months before King Abdullah II would consider commuting their sentences. The sources said that since the four have already spent 17 years in jail in Israel, another one-and-a-half years would bring their sentences to 18 and a half, not an insignificant period of time. Three of the prisoners, Jordanian National Guardsmen, infiltrated from Jordan on November 8, 1990, and killed Capt. (res.) Yehuda Lifshitz, 27, an economics student at Tel Aviv University from Ra'anana, in a firefight with his patrol near the village of Ouja, north of Jericho. Five days later, an Islamic Jihad infiltrator crossed the border, entered an IDF outpost on the Jordan River and killed St.-Sgt. (res.) Pinhas Levy, 37, from Givon Hahadasha. Olmert read out letters in the cabinet from the families of the two men opposing the transfer of the Jordanians. At least one of the families has expressed an intention to petition the High Court of Justice to block the move. Cabinet sources said that one of the considerations behind transferring the men was to prevent them from being included in any future prisoner release or swap - such as the gesture to be made to Abbas or a possible swap for kidnapped Cpl. Gilad Schalit. Olmert, according to the sources, did not want Hamas to be able to "take credit" for the transfer, as Hizbullah did when prime minister Ariel Sharon released a number of Jordanian prisoners in the deal for Elhanan Tannenbaum, held in Lebanon, in 2004. Jordan has been pushing for the transfer of the four prisoners for years, saying they were the only Jordanians held by Israel who were arrested before the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty of 1994. The cabinet finalized the release of frozen PA tax revenue, with the Treasury to wire the first installment to the PA Finance Ministry immediately. Shortly after Hamas's takeover of Gaza last month and the establishment of an emergency PA government in the West Bank dominated by Fatah, Olmert announced that Israel would renew the transfer of tax funds it collects on behalf of the PA. Israel stopped these transfers in March 2006, following Hamas's takeover of the PA government. Although Israel made a payment of some $100 million earlier this year following an Olmert-Abbas meeting, about $600m. is still being held by the Finance Ministry. Of that money, $200m. is tied up by lawsuits filed by Israeli companies owed money by the PA. Government sources said the cabinet gave the green light Sunday to release the $400m. not tied up in the courts in five or six monthly payments, and to renew regular transfers of the tax revenue - generally about $50m. a month - to the PA coffers. Israel has stipulated that the money not pay for terrorism; to assure this, the only PA officials who will have access to the account will be Abbas, the PA's prime minister and finance minister, both positions currently held by Salaam Fayad, and the PA Finance Ministry's accountant-general. Israeli sources said that in the past, more Palestinians officials had access to the account, and that limited access to the account would be effective in ensuring that the money did not finance terrorism.