Controversy as Israel releases prisoners


MIDDLE EAST: Israel freed 334 Palestinian prisoners yesterday, calling it a goodwill gesture to energise the US-backed road map peace plan, writes Peter Hirschberg in Jerusalem.

But Palestinian leaders poured scorn on the releases, accusing Israel of adopting "theatrical" measures aimed at winning points with the Bush administration.

"Every confidence-building step we take is immediately forgotten by the Palestinians. It's a pattern with them. They want to put the onus on us all the time," said Mr Gideon Meir, the Foreign Ministry deputy director general.

If Israel wanted to present the releases as a generous gesture, the Palestinians refused to go along. The Palestinian Authority decided not to hold welcome ceremonies as a mark of protest, and there were no spontaneous celebrations in the West Bank and Gaza.

"It is worthless and meaningless," Palestinian Minister Mr Yasser Abed Rabbo said. "It is a theatrical step to appease Washington." The 334 prisoners - there are still over 6,000 in Israeli jails - were taken by bus from their prisons and dropped off in the West Bank and Gaza, where they were greeted by ecstatic family members.

Before being released, they had to sign a form saying they would not be involved in attacks on Israelis. The freeing of five prisoners was delayed after Israeli families of victims of attacks by Palestinians, appealed to the justice ministry.

A further 99 prisoners held on criminal charges will also be released soon. The Palestinians were disappointed with the small number released, by the fact that the sentences of many of those freed were to have expired in the coming weeks and months anyway, and that long-serving prisoners were not among the group that went free.

"If Israel intended the release of Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill measure, the result was just the opposite," said Mr Kadura Fares, a senior member of the ruling Fatah Party.

Hamas leaders called the release a sham and warned it would impact negatively on the temporary truce they declared on June 29th. But Israeli officials have said future releases are contingent on the Palestinian Authority cracking down on armed groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. "The onus is on the Palestinian side. They have to arrest terrorists, dismantle terror organisations and collect illegal weapons," said Mr Meir.

With the road map becoming increasingly bogged down, potential trouble was also brewing on another front, with two lawmakers from the right-wing ruling Likud Party yesterday vowing to visit a disputed holy site in the Old City of Jerusalem today - a move the Palestinians view as a provocation. The two, Ms Inbal Gavrieli and Mr Yehiel Hazan, said they would defy police orders and go ahead with a visit to mark Tisha B'Av (the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av), when Jews commemorate the destruction of the biblical Jewish temples.

Jews refer to the site as the Temple Mount and it is their holiest. Muslims call it Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), and it is their third-holiest site. The last Israeli politician to visit the site, which contains the Al Aqsa mosque, was Mr Ariel Sharon, who was then leader of the opposition and was trying to make a symbolic display of Israel's claim to sovereignty. The day after the visit riots broke out leaving six Palestinians dead.

The deaths triggered more protests that ultimately mushroomed into the armed uprising, which Palestinians call the Al Aqsa Intifada.

Visits by small groups of Jews and tourists to the site, which is controlled by the Muslim waqf, ended shortly after the uprising began, but were quietly renewed several weeks ago.

Israel's police chief, Mr Shlomo Aharonishky, said he would block the lawmakers from visiting the site.