Latest Israeli Prisoner Release Disappoints Palestinians

By STEVEN ERLANGER

New York Times

May 25, 2005

JERUSALEM, May 29 - The Israeli cabinet approved today the release of an additional 400 Palestinian prisoners, fulfilling a promise made in early February to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and sparking immediate Palestinian criticism.

The Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, said in a statement that he recognized the need to support Mr. Abbas and those Palestinians in competition with Hamas, the radical Islamic faction that Israel and the United States consider a terrorist group, and to keep his promises made at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit on Feb. 8, after the death of Yasir Arafat and the election of Mr. Abbas.

"Israel has strong claims regarding the Palestinians, including very serious criticism regarding the implementation of the Sharm el-Sheikh understandings," Mr. Sharon said. "But those who believe that the events of the coming months are liable to strengthen the forces of extremist terrorism certainly understand the need to strengthen the principal moderate element in the P.A. and honor our commitments."

Mr. Sharon was referring to the Israeli pullout of all its settlers from Gaza, scheduled for mid-August, and the need to coordinate the withdrawal with the Palestinian Authority to prevent attacks on the Israelis and a harsh Israeli military retaliation.

Mr. Sharon said the 400 prisoners, who will be released in about a week, after ministers finish compiling their names, are likely to include some who have more than one-third of their terms to complete. But none of those released will have been convicted of killing or planning to kill Israelis, Mr. Sharon said.

That disappointed Palestinians, who have been eager to get some of the 360 longer-term prisoners released who were jailed before the 1993 Oslo accords that set up the Palestinian Authority. More than 7,000 Palestinians are in Israeli custody.

The Palestinian minister for prisoners, Sufian Abu Zaydeh, said: "This one-sided step does not meet the minimum of our demands. Our priority is to release young prisoners, the women, the elderly, the sick and political leaders like Marwan Barghouti," who was convicted of five life terms for conspiring to murder Israelis.

Saeb Erekat, another minister, said the decision was "not enough," and called on Israel to keep another of its promises in Sharm and hand over to Palestinian security control another three West Bank cities - Bethlehem, Qalqilya and Ramallah. Israel has handed over Jericho and Tulkarm, but says that the Palestinians are not keeping their commitments to disarm wanted militants in those cities.

Three members of Mr. Sharon's Likud Party - Benjamin Netanyahu, Danny Naveh and Israel Katz - voted against the release. Mr. Netanyahu said that the Palestinians had failed to take promised action against Hamas and militants, and given warnings from the military about "the strengthening of Hamas and the ineffectuality of the Palestinian Authority, I see no reason to give them a prize."

Mr. Naveh said that the release "will only be interpreted as weakness on the Israeli side."

In the last day, two Palestinians were killed by Israeli troops in the West Bank after one ran toward soldiers with a knife and said he was going to kill them near Hebron, a regular site of Israeli-Palestinian tension, about 20 yards from the Tomb of the Patriarchs. After warning shots into the air, soldiers shot him, and he later died. An army spokesman said there was no time to try to ascertain his mental health, and that letters were found on him to his family, saying that he wanted to die a martyr.

Another Palestinian was killed in a shootout near Jenin, and two more wounded, when they fired at soldiers from a car. A Palestinian died in Gaza when the rocket-propelled grenade he was trying to fire into a Jewish settlement there exploded prematurely.

In Gaza, Palestinian election officials ordered partial re-runs of votes in three localities, Rafah, Beit Lahiya and Bureij, after charges of vote rigging lodged against Hamas by Fatah. Hamas narrowly won the three localities.

Also today, the press reported that the Israeli police have arrested 20 people for using a computer virus to spy on their competitors. Among those arrested were some executives from well-known Israeli companies like Cellcom, Pelephone and the satellite television company YES, the latter two owned by the state phone company, Bezeq. The investigation, which the police called one of Israel's "gravest scandals" in industrial espionage, has lasted at least six months. Some nine private detectives were arrested for allegedly obtaining documents of commercial value and then passing them on to their clients.

The case began to unravel when a psychologist found parts of a book he was writing on the Internet. His former son-in-law, Michael Efrati, is accused of having developed the virus and having sold it to companies. Mr. Efrati and his wife were arrested in London.

And an Israeli soldier was arrested as he spray-painted a slogan against the Gaza pullout plan, "Jews don't expel Jews," on the walls of the new army building in Tel Aviv that contains the offices of the senior commanders.