PA to free hundreds of Hamas detainees

Officials say move reflection of PA disappointment at Washington's failure to force Israeli concessions.

Abbas worried sad 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Abbas worried sad 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has decided to free hundreds of Hamas members being held without trial in PA prisons in the West Bank, officials here said on Monday. The decision is aimed at paving the way for the resumption of reconciliation talks between Abbas's Fatah faction and Hamas, the officials said. They added that the move was also meant as a message to the US and Israel to the effect that the PA leadership was deeply disappointed by Washington's failure to force the Israeli government to stop construction in the settlements and accept the two-state solution unconditionally. Azzam al-Ahmed, a top Fatah legislator closely associated with Abbas, said the PA president had instructed the Palestinian security forces in the West Bank to start releasing Hamas detainees in the coming days. He said the instructions also related to those detainees who were arrested for security offenses, on condition that they didn't pose a threat to public order and security. Ahmed, who was a member of the Fatah team during the previous reconciliation talks with Hamas, confirmed that the decision was linked to Abbas's desire to patch up his differences with the Islamist group. The Egyptian-sponsored talks were called off due to Hamas's insistence that Abbas's security forces stop arresting its supporters in the West Bank and release some 700 detainees being held without trial. PA security officials said the massive crackdown on Hamas supporters was part of preemptive measures aimed at foiling the movement's efforts to topple the PA regime in the West Bank. Fatah and Hamas negotiators have been invited to another round of talks in the Egyptian capital on July 7. A PA official here told The Jerusalem Post the Egyptians planned to impose an agreement on the two parties if they did not settle their differences in the next few weeks. "General Omar Suleiman is very serious about forcing the two sides to sign an agreement over the formation of a Palestinian unity government," the official said, referring to the head of Egypt's General Intelligence chief, who has been personally supervising the talks. Ibrahim Abu al-Naja, a senior Fatah representative from the Gaza Strip who has also been involved in the talks with Hamas, revealed that, on Abbas's instructions, more than 20 Hamas detainees had already been released over the weekend. "Fatah is prepared to do many things for the sake of achieving national unity," he said. "The divisions have seriously harmed the higher interests of our people." A special legal committee established by Abbas has begun reviewing the cases of the Hamas detainees as a first step toward setting them free, another PA official told the Post. He said that the committee's job was to recommend which detainees would be released and when. Ashraf Juma'ah, a Fatah legislator, called on Hamas to respond to the "goodwill gesture" by releasing Fatah detainees held in its prisons in the Gaza Strip. Juma'ah praised Abbas's decision as "bold and wise," saying its main objective is to create a better atmosphere for resuming the reconciliation talks. "We urge Hamas to reciprocate by releasing all the Fatah detainees, including senior Fatah officials, from its prisons," he said, adding that some of the detainees had been tortured. "We also hope that both sides would end the campaign of incitement against each other." Hamas officials responded to Abbas's initiative with skepticism, pointing out that this was not the first time that the PA leader had promised to release Hamas detainees. "We want to see deeds, not words," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. "It's premature to judge Abbas regarding his claim that he will release political detainees." Abu Zuhri claimed that in the past the PA security forces refused to obey Abbas's orders to free Hamas detainees. Sources close to Hamas told the Post that Abbas's decision was aimed at "distracting attention" from the continued campaign against Hamas supporters in the West Bank. The sources said that in the past 48 hours alone, security forces loyal to Abbas arrested 39 Hamas supporters, including 15 elected members of municipal councils, five school teachers, two civil engineers, two university students and two imams. Salah Bardaweel, a member of the Hamas delegation to the reconciliation talks, condemned the campaign as a "crime" and an "obstacle" to achieving national unity. He said that Abbas's latest decision, if implemented, would be a "good step" toward ending schism in the Palestinian arena.