Sharon Freezes Release of Palestinian Prisoners

By STEVEN ERLANGER

New York Times

May 9, 2005

JERUSALEM, May 9 - Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel ordered a freeze today on the release of 400 Palestinian prisoners, infuriating the Palestinians and embarrassing Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader.

Mr. Sharon said the prisoners would remain behind bars until the Palestinian Authority moved harder against terrorism and militancy, telling his cabinet, "Let it be clear, there will be no prisoner release before steps are taken against terror," said an official who briefed reporters.

Mr. Sharon was under pressure from his own Likud Party to toughen his position after Palestinians fired Qassam rockets from Gaza that hit the Israeli town of Sederot on Thursday and an opinion poll on Friday put for his plan to pull out of Gaza at 54 percent, down from 61 percent three weeks ago.

Mr. Sharon was also quoted as saying, "Everyone asks me to strengthen Abu Mazen, but I tell them, not at the expense of Israeli lives." He was using the more common name for Mr. Abbas.

The prisoner release had been expected to be imminent, and was part of the deal the two men struck on Feb. 8 at their meeting in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, to release 900 prisoners. Israel has already released 500 prisoners, most of them nearing the end of their sentences, and Mr. Abbas has been pressing for the release of the 400 others, including some longer-term prisoners who had engaged in fighting the Israeli occupation.

The Israelis have also frozen the handover of three towns in the West Bank to Palestinian security control, contending that in the two towns handed over, Jericho and Tulkarm, the Palestinian Authority has not disarmed wanted militants, as it had promised.

"This decision is part of the Israeli obstacles to the implementation of the Sharm el-Sheik agreements and will have a negative impact" on the cease-fire between Israel and Palestinians, Sufian Abu Zaydeh, the Palestinian minister for prisoner affairs, said in Gaza.

Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian minister who negotiates with the Israelis, said Mr. Sharon had frozen Sharm el-Sheik. "It's clear the only thing that is not frozen is the continuation of settlement activities," Mr. Erekat said. "Something must be done, with deeds and not mere words, to stop the deterioration."

A Labor member of the Israeli coalition cabinet, Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz, said in an interview that Labor disagreed with the freeze. "I'm very worried about a situation where the cease-fire will collapse," he said. "It's true that the Palestinians don't keep to all their understandings, but we don't either. I suggested that the prime minister meet with Abu Mazen as soon as possible to stop the deterioration and collapsing of the cease-fire."

Mr. Abbas is away on a foreign visit, but a sign of his problems came with Hamas's good showing against Mr. Abbas's Fatah movement in a third round of municipal elections last week. Today, armed gunmen affiliated with Fatah shut down central Gaza offices of the election committee, apparently in an effort to overturn what they called fraudulent election returns in Rafah and Bureij that favored Hamas.

Later, they took over the Beit Lahiya municipality, which Hamas won in the voting, and refused to leave.

Sami Abu Zuhari, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, said: "We are upset that the whole Palestinian Authority, and the ministers of secruity, are interfering with the results of the election. They are sending people to put pressure on the election committees in Rafah and Beit Lahiya to change their position."

This kind of chaos puts more pressure on Mr. Sharon to act tough with Mr. Abbas. Today his Likud rival, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said about the Palestinians: "When they are launching mortars at Sederot and placing bombs on fences, and shooting at Israeli civilians and Abu Mazen doesn't lift a finger, I think it is not the time to release prisoners."

This evening, an Israeli-Palestinian committee on the prisoner exchange met and the Likud Justice Minister, Tzipi Livni, said she would use the meeting "to emphasize the importance of Israeli demands to the Palestinians, and then we will see when and if we release prisoners."

Also today, the chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Amar, issued a statement denying any knowledge of the kidnapping and beating of his 18-year-old daughter's boyfriend. The rabbi's eldest son, Meir, 31, his wife, Mazal, and daughter, Ayala, were arrested Thursday night, accused of a plot to pressure the 17-year-old boyfriend to break off the relationship. The police want to question the rabbi.

A great part of Israel spent this evening watching television, as Maccabi Tel Aviv beat Tau Ceramica of Spain, 90-78, in Moscow to win the Euroleague basketball title for the second consecutive year. Afterward, the Maccabi coach, Pini Gershon, was so emotional he was unable to talk to an Israel TV interviewer for almost a minute. "This is fantastic," he managed to say before leaping into an embrace from President Moshe Katsav.