Israel on Tuesday released former Palestinian Education Minister Nasser Shaer and Hamas member Ramadan Shadat from prison, the IDF said in a statement. The statement said Shaer was in administrative detention - imprisonment without trial - and was released under an agreement that he would sign a statement renouncing his membership in Hamas and declaring he would not hold positions in the Palestinian Authority for Hamas or any other illegal organization. Shaer was the most senior among 33 Hamas leaders, including lawmakers, rounded up by Israeli security forces in the West Bank last May.
List of prisoners to be released (in Hebrew)
Olmert to Abbas: Don't talk to Hamas
The list of security prisoners set to be released on Friday in an effort to strengthen Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas was released for public review on Tuesday, topped by the deputy head of the Popular Front of the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
The list consists mostly of Palestinians arrested for illegal weapons possession, stone-throwing and membership in terrorist organizations.
Prominent on the list is Abdel Rahim Malouh, second in command of PFLP, the group behind the 2001 assassination of tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi at a Jerusalem hotel. Malouh, who is 60 and reportedly ill, was arrested in 2002 and convicted of membership in a terror group. He was scheduled to be released in two years.
Malouh, a member of the PLO's executive committee, is close to Abbas and could serve as a mediator with Hamas.
Families of terror victims were outraged at the pending release of Palestinians they said had been involved in the murder of their loved ones.
Michael Theler, whose 16-year-old daughter, Rachel, was killed in the 2002 bombing of the Yuvalim Mall in Karnei Shomron, expressed anger that one of the leaders of the PFLP, the group that took responsibility for the attack, was included in the list.
"How can the government release the person who killed my daughter?" Theler asked in a Channel 1 interview. "What can I do? Will anybody listen to me?"
The Israel Prisons Service posted the list of prisoners on its Web site, in keeping with the law giving Israelis the right to use the next 48 hours to petition the High Court of Justice against the release.
In total, 256 prisoners are scheduled to be released on Friday, including six women. Most of them are affiliated with Abbas's Fatah Party, but some are members of PFLP and its splinter group, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The prisoners do not have "blood on their hands," security sources said.
The 10-person interministerial committee that approved the names of security prisoners to be released was authorized to do so by a cabinet decision two weeks ago. The decision to release the 256 was approved by a vote of 7-3, with Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai of Shas, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz of Kadima and Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman of Israel Beiteinu voting against.
Yishai reportedly said at the cabinet meeting that Israel was continuously taking unilateral steps and making unilateral gestures.
"Israel should not always be the one offering gestures all the time," he said. "This gesture is wrong and unnecessary."
Public Security Minister Avi Dichter of Kadima, a former head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), supported the release. "This is certainly an acceptable risk Israel is taking in order to strengthen [Abbas's] regime," he said after touring a prison in the Negev where some of the prisoners are being held.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat carefully praised the release, saying freedom for any Palestinian prisoners was welcome, but he urged Israel to free more of them. Israel holds about 10,500 Palestinians.
Harsher criticism came from the PA minister for prisoner affairs, Ashraf al-Ajrami. "Israel insists on releasing those who have limited sentences," Ajrami said. "We want a release of prisoners who received long sentences."
Mofaz told Israel Radio after the meeting that the move to unilaterally free prisoners would raise Hamas's price for the release of kidnapped IDF Cpl. Gilad Schalit, and that he opposed the release at a time when Schalit was still being held.
Mofaz noted that Israel's gestures over the last few years had not done Abbas any good. He added that those being released were "very dangerous," and warned that some of them would return to terrorism.
Sources in the Prime Minister's Office said that those released had all been convicted for security-related reasons, and that many of them had taken part in terrorist attacks that, from the point of view of the terrorists, "did not succeed," since nobody was killed or wounded.
The release will take place on Friday, some three weeks after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made a surprise announcement at the Sharm e-Sheikh summit that he would release the prisoners.
Those who voted for the release in the interministerial committee included Olmert, Dichter, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Vice Premier Haim Ramon of Kadima, Defense Minister Ehud Barak of Labor, Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann, who is not a member of a party, and Pensioners Minister Rafi Eitan of the Gil Party.
AP contributed to this report.