Israel to release Palestinian prisoners


Israel's cabinet agreed today to release 250 Palestinian prisoners in the latest attempt to strengthen Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after Hamas's seizure of the Gaza Strip.

"I think this is a worthy gesture to make ... because we want to use any means that can reinforce moderate elements in the Palestinian Authority," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the cabinet in broadcast remarks.

Mr Olmert had pledged to free prisoners of Abbas's Fatah movement in a June 25th summit with the Palestinian leader as part of a Western campaign to bolster the new administration he named after sacking a unity government with Hamas Islamists.

A government official said the cabinet voted 18 to 6 in favour of a motion to release 250 prisoners.

A final release roster will be put together by a committee. Once the Israeli list is approved, it could still take days before prisoners are freed since Israel would allow 48 hours for the releases to be challenged in petitions to the Supreme Court.

Previous prisoner releases have raised opposition from groups representating families of Israelis harmed in Palestinian attacks. Palestinians regard prisoners held by Israel as heroes of what they call resistance against occupation.

Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Abbas, welcomed the Israeli decision but urged it to draw up the list of those to be freed in coordination with the Palestinians.

"The prisoner issue needs more than gestures to be resolved, however, we welcome the release of prisoners any time," he said.

Officials estimate there are at least 10,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.