Defense minister meets PA prime minister in J'lem; c'tee approves release of 230 Palestinian prisoners.
By HERB KEINON, JPOST STAFF
Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Sunday presented Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayad with a list of goodwill gestures Israel is making to the Palestinians ahead of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, or the "Feast of the Sacrifice."
During a meeting in Jerusalem, Barak updated Fayad on Israel's decision to ease restrictions in the West Bank ahead of the holiday.
Based on the decision, Israel will allow Palestinian men over the age of 40 and all married women, regardless of their age, to enter Israel to visit family. Israeli-Arabs will also be allowed to enter parts of Area A, usually off-limits to Israeli citizens. Palestinian men over 45 will also be allowed to travel to Jerusalem for prayer services on the Temple Mount.
Barak told Fayad that Israel viewed the current PA operations in Hebron and Jenin positively and was considering allowing a similar deployment of PA security forces in Bethlehem ahead of Christmas. Barak stressed the importance of setting up courts and jail systems in the PA territories.
Barak also said that Israel would not reopen the crossings into the Gaza Strip until the Kassam rocket attacks ended.
"The Kassam fire does not allow Israel to open the crossings and the responsibility for the difficult situation in Gaza lies on Hamas," Barak said, adding that Israel would continue to permit the flow of minimal supplies needed in Gaza to stave off a humanitarian crisis.
The ministerial committee on the release of prisoners, which planned to approve names of 250 Palestinian prisoners to be freed on Sunday, only sanctioned 230 names, because an additional 20 prisoners could not be found who meet the government's criteria for release, officials said.
According to the criteria for the release of prisoners to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in goodwill gestures, only prisoners "without blood on their hands" who are not affiliated with either Hamas or Islamic Jihad may be released.
The 230 security prisoners agreed upon on Sunday, a number of whom have been convicted of attempted murder and were to serve sentences until 2015, are scheduled to be released on Tuesday to mark the Id al-Adha holiday.
Nineteen of them are to return to the Gaza Strip.
Israel is believed to be holding some 9,000 Palestinian prisoners.
After Tuesday's scheduled release, Israel will have freed some 1,000 security prisoners in goodwill gestures to Abbas since the summer of 2007.
With the release of the prisoners - even though no progress has been made for the release of St.-Sgt. Gilad Schalit, and while Kassam rockets are being fired daily on the western Negev - the government will make good on a promise Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made last month to Abbas.
The list was approved by the ministerial committee by a vote of 3-2, with Olmert, Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann, and Pensioners Affairs Minister Rafi Eitan voting in favor, and Public Security Minister Avi Dichter and Industry, Labor and Trade Minister Eli Yishai against. The list was drawn up by Justice Ministry and security officials, after the cabinet voted 13-4 last week to approve the release in principle.
Dichter said that while he supported the release of prisoners to strengthen Abbas, he was opposed to freeing any of them to the Gaza Strip, because Abbas had no influence on what went on there. According to Dichter, Israel had to look at and treat Gaza "completely differently."
The government saw the release "as a confidence-building measure, designed to create goodwill and to strengthen the dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians," Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev said.
Almagor, an organization representing victims of terrorism, and the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel have petitioned the High Court of Justice against the government's decision to release the prisoners. The hearing on the petitions is scheduled for Monday, but Almagor asked on Sunday for a postponement so that it can finish examining the backgrounds of each of the terrorists whom the security cabinet decided to release.
Dan Izenberg contributed to this report.
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