'J'lem has agreed to release Barghouti'

Palestinian Authority claims jailed Tanzim leader's release being discussed; Israeli official denies.

Barghouti 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Barghouti 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The Israeli government has informed the Palestinian Authority that it has no objections to the release of jailed Fatah operative Marwan Barghouti, a senior PA official in Ramallah said over the weekend. The official told The Jerusalem Post that Barghouti and several other prominent security prisoners could be released in the coming days or weeks. Barghouti is serving five life sentences for the murders of four Israelis and a Greek monk. But an official in Jerusalem said Saturday night that "the release of Marwan Barghouti is simply not on the table today." The official also said that last week's release of 198 Palestinian detainees freed "was not the first prisoner release and will not be the last." The question of an additional prisoner release will be one of the items on the agenda at talks in Jerusalem on Sunday between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Olmert, who will be accompanied by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, will stress Israel's desire to move forward with the Annapolis process with the aim of reaching a deal with the Palestinians before US President George W. Bush leaves office in January. Also Sunday, Vice Premier Haim Ramon will convene a special ministerial committee to draw up a list of 450 security prisoners Israel is willing to release in an Egyptian-mediated prisoner swap with Hamas in return for kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Schalit, who last week marked his third birthday in captivity in Gaza. The London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper quoted Hamas sources on Saturday saying that the movement is now demanding more than 1,000 prisoners in return for Schalit. According to the senior PA official who spoke to the Post, Israel has agreed in principle to free many security prisoners, including Barghouti and Fuad Shobaki, a PA general who was involved in the failed attempt to smuggle the Karin A weapons ship into the Gaza Strip nearly eight years ago. The official added that Israel has also agreed to free Abdel Aziz Dweik, speaker of the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Legislative Council, who is reported to be in bad health. The PA official said the release of Dweik and other Hamas officials, including ministers and legislators, would "further strengthen" the standing of Abbas and the PA leadership. "It's better for all if Barghouti and the Hamas officials are released as a result of our efforts and not through a prisoner exchange with Hamas," the official told the Post. "Hamas is hoping to score points by releasing Fatah and Hamas prisoners in return for Gilad Schalit." Abbas would demand in Sunday's talks with Olmert that Israel release hundreds of prisoners as a gesture on the eve of Ramadan, a source close to the PA president said. Chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat said Abbas would demand that Israel release all the sick prisoners, as well as the elderly, females and minors. He confirmed that Abbas would also seek the release of Barghouti and some Hamas legislators. In addition, Abbas would demand that Israel release Ahmed Sadat, secretary-general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who is suspected of involvement in the murder of tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi in 2001, he said. Erekat said that the gap between Israel and the Palestinians remained as wide as ever, especially regarding the fundamental final-status issues. He ruled out the possibility that the two sides would be able to reach an agreement before the Kadima primary on September 17. "The gap between the Israeli and Palestinian positions still exists," he said. "This is especially true with regards to all the final-status issues: Jerusalem, borders, refugees, settlements, water and security. Therefore, I rule out the possibility that there would be an agreement or a written document this month." Erekat added that as far as the Palestinians were concerned, "We are not in a bazaar or a market. We are talking about rights and we must ensure our rights in any agreement." Erekat, who is expected to participate in the Olmert-Abbas talks along with Ahmed Qurei, head of the PA negotiating team, said the two sides would review the latest developments surrounding the peace negotiations and the implementation of the road map peace plan. He said the Palestinians would demand that Israel start implementing the first phase of the plan, which calls for a halt in settlement construction and, according to Erekat, the West Bank security barrier, the reopening of closed PLO institutions in Jerusalem, removing IDF checkpoints and allowing Palestinian deportees to return to the West Bank.