Prisoners with 'blood on hands' to be released

Mofaz gives sole dissenting vote: I do not believe in useless gestures; 199 prisoners to be released.

Prisoners 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Prisoners 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
A Palestinian responsible for at least one terror attack and a second who killed a yeshiva student are among the 199 prisoners that a small ministerial committee agreed to release when it met on Monday. Until this week, Said al-Atba had been serving a life sentence for his part in a 1977 Petah Tikva explosion that killed Tzila Galili. The longest-held Palestinian prisoner, he had been convicted of bomb-making, planting explosives, illegal military training and membership in a illegal organization. Arrested in 1980, Muhammad Abu Ali had been jailed for life after killing 20-year-old yeshiva student Joshua Saloma in 1980. He was later convicted of killing a Palestinian in jail whom he had accused of collaborating with Israel. In addition to these two prisoners, designated as having "blood on their hands," an additional 197 Palestinians were released, most of whom were arrested after the year 2000. Many of them had served less than half their sentence and at least 35 of them were involved in shooting incidents or attempted murder. A former Fatah lawmaker accused of accepting funds from Hizbullah was also in the group. If no legal objection is accepted by the High Court of Justice within the next 48 hours, the release is likely to take place on Friday, in advance of an anticipated visit by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice next week. According to media reports, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) had confirmed that the men were safe to be released. On Sunday, however, a senior defense official told The Jerusalem Post that many Shin Bet members were unhappy over the government's policy of releasing security prisoners, whom the Shin Bet had worked "day and night" to capture. The official said many in the Shin Bet felt the releases harmed deterrence and lowered motivation in the security services. But the government said that the release was intended as a goodwill gesture to Abbas, and was necessary to make a statement about the need to support moderate Palestinians. The only politician in the ministerial committee who opposed the the move was Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Pensioners Affairs Minister Rafi Eitan all voted in favor of the release on Monday. Vice Premier Haim Ramon supported it by proxy. Absent from the meeting were Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai of Shas and Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann. Public Security Minister Avi Dichter supported the overall release of the 197 prisoners but objected to the move to free Atba and Abu Ali. Mofaz objected to all of the releases. "When Israel releases prisoners to weak political players without demanding something in return, these players remain weak," he said. He warned that the gesture itself would be seen as a sign of Israeli weakness and that Abbas had not been strengthened as a result. "Instead of helping [Abbas] we should be worried about taking steps to advance the release of Gilad Schalit," said Mofaz. Schalit has been held captive by Hamas in Gaza since June 2006. "I do not believe in useless gestures. I believe in trust-building gestures that lead to results on the ground, and that can't be said about the release of these prisoners. In order to achieve our goal, which is security, we must engage in negotiations that yield results and in which our demands are met," Mofaz continued. But for Palestinians the fate of the roughly 9,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails is a highly emotional issue, since many Palestinians either know someone in prison or have served time themselves. Abbas, who is struggling to show his people the fruits of drawn-out peace negotiations with Israel, has repeatedly urged Israel to carry out a large-scale release. "Solving the prisoner problem paves the road to solving other issues in [peace] negotiations," said Abbas spokesman Ahmed Abdel Rahman. He said the inclusion of long-serving prisoners would bolster the president's credibility with the public, which has grown skeptical over the slow pace of peace talks. Israel has released prisoners to Abbas in the past, most recently last December, but has balked at releasing Palestinians serving time for deadly attacks. At Atba's home in Nablus, his 75-year-old mother Widad said neighbors were already coming over to congratulate her on her son's impending release. "I'm afraid to close my eyes. I haven't slept, waiting for him to come through the door. I can't wait to hold him," she said. Sahar Francis, a prominent lawyer for Palestinian prisoners, said the planned release of Atba has given hope to 300 other long-serving prisoners with similar sentences that they too might be freed in the future. "Prisoners are happy for everybody who is released, especially if they conducted attacks inside Israel and killed people," she said. Although Hamas welcomed the prisoner release, it is unlikely the group will ease its demands. "The government will make every possible effort for the release [of prisoners] from Israeli jails," said Taher Nunu, a Hamas government spokesman. Hamas may well now feel pressured to harden its position to show weary Gaza residents that it can still obtain more from Israel through kidnapping its soldiers, rather than peaceful negotiations. AP contributed to this report.