Israel to free 900 Palestinians, pull back in 5 West Bank cities

Abbas says militants have OK'd cease-fire

summit set for Tuesday

February 04, 2005|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - The Israeli government approved the release yesterday of 900 Palestinian prisoners and a gradual pullback of troops from five West Bank cities, but Palestinian officials said the number of prisoners was too low.

On a day when each side seemed to take one step forward and then one step back on several issues, the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said militant groups had agreed to a cease-fire and thereby to end their attacks against Israel, but added that he wanted a reciprocal pledge from Israel before he meets Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Tuesday, in Egypt.

Abbas told reporters: "We have announced a cease-fire. And the Israelis should announce one also."

The Palestinian's chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, told Israel's state radio, "You can hear the Palestinian leader saying from [Egypt] that the Palestinian side is committed to stopping all kinds of violence anywhere, period."

Israel has refused to be part of a formal cease-fire with militant groups, but a spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry said that both sides, during their meeting next week, could declare an end to military operations.

"Everyone wants the summit to be a success," said the spokesman, Mark Regev. "We want the Palestinian people to understand that they have so much to gain from the path of negotiations, from the path of diplomacy, from the path of nonviolence."

Israeli officials yesterday also approved orders by military commanders to halt offensive operations in Gaza and curtail army activity in the West Bank. The army also will stop targeting militants for assassination and is considering granting amnesty to wanted fugitives.

"What the Cabinet decided is a whole series of measures designed to show the Palestinians that this process can make their lives better," Regev said. "These gestures are not easy for us. For every prisoner released, there is an Israeli in a hospital or a cemetery. Pulling out of the cities will bring us a security risk. As we saw today, the terrorist threat has not receded."

Israeli police put Jerusalem on alert for several hours yesterday because of fears that a suicide bomber was in the city. Soldiers outside the West Bank city of Nablus arrested a 16-year-old Palestinian wearing a bomb belt and carrying a gun and bullets.

Elsewhere, two Israeli soldiers in Gaza were slightly wounded when a militant threw grenades at them at a checkpoint; the soldiers shot and killed the attacker. In another incident, two Israelis were wounded in an attack near Hebron.

The prisoner release would fall short of Palestinian demands that all 8,000 prisoners be freed, but it would be the largest such release by Israel since 1995.

Israeli officials said that no Palestinian who directly participated in attacks would be considered for release. Five hundred are to be released shortly, followed by another 400 in three weeks.

Ziad Abu Zayadd, a prominent member of the Palestinian parliament, said past prisoner releases had rung hollow because they included mostly petty criminals or prisoners already near the end of their prison terms.

"If that is the same this time, it will mean nothing to the Palestinians," Zayyad said. "The same goes for the troop withdrawal. If all they do is leave but keep the checkpoints around the cities, it will be a meaningless gesture."

Israel's Cabinet decided to slow the withdrawal of troops from Palestinian cities and turning security over to Palestinian police. Instead of leaving five cities at once, as originally proposed, the Cabinet decided yesterday to withdraw troops first from Jericho, which has remained largely peaceful. The withdrawal would begin shortly after the summit meeting in Egypt.

That would be followed in the next weeks or months by pullbacks from Bethlehem, Qalqiliya, Tulkarm and - last - Ramallah, de facto Palestinian capital.

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