Israel releases Palestinian prisoners, but doubts linger over peace moves
Rearming itself in Gaza, Hamas has made a 'generational leap' in its military capability, a senior Israeli source says.
Israel released just over 250 Palestinian prisoners on Friday, leading to scenes of jubilation on the West Bank and pledges of support to Palestinian President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas, the Associated Press reports.Skip to next paragraph
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The release was meant to bolster Abbas in his power struggle with the Islamic militant Hamas, which took control of Gaza by force last month.
Several thousand chanting, clapping Palestinians greeted the prisoners as their buses rolled into Abbas' headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah....
"This is the beginning," said Abbas. "Efforts must continue. Our work must continue until every prisoner returns to his home."
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said the prisoner release is part of a package of goodwill gestures that is to give new momentum to stalled peace efforts.
But a number of reports express skepticism that the two key players in the conflict, as well as the United States, are ready or willing to push for the compromises that could bring peace a step closer. Agence France-Presse reports on an interview that Israel's Haaretz newspaper carried with James Wolfensohn, the former special envoy for the so-called Middle East Quartet of the EU, US, Russia and the World Bank, who said the US was a particular obstacle to his peace efforts.
"There was never a desire on the part of the Americans to give up control of the negotiations, and I would doubt that in the eyes of ... the State Department team, I was ever anything but a nuisance," Haaretz quoted him as saying.
Haaretz said Mr. Wolfensohn believed Israeli officials also regarded him as a nuisance, particularly after former prime minister Ariel Sharon disappeared from public life following a stroke in January 2006.
But he expressed hope that former British premier Tony Blair, his successor, would have a "greater mandate" than the one he enjoyed.
In another article in Haaretz, an unnamed senior military official is quoted as saying that Hamas's military strength is improving in its Gaza Strip stronghold, though the outlook for a major incursion into Gaza is limited because of a lack of Israeli public support for such a move now. The tone of the article is that even if Israel is less likely to face attacks from the West Bank, that conflict in Gaza is looming.
A senior military source offered reporters troubling details regarding Hamas' arming in the Gaza Strip. The [Philadelphia] Route, he said, is entirely out of control. The deterioration that began after Israel's disengagement from Gaza in 2005 has now become fully legitimized in the eyes of the Palestinians following Hamas' takeover a month ago. Smuggling, meanwhile, has transformed into an operation of importing arms and ammunition.
The senior military source said the improvement in Hamas' capabilities in the past two years was equivalent to a "generational leap," which in military jargon means a significant advance.
The army is certain that Israel and Hamas are on a collision course. They also say that the more time passes and Hamas grows in strength – including expertise acquired by its operatives in training camps in Iran – the more difficult it will be to deal with it.
The Jerusalem Post reports that Israel is ruling out the fast transfer of full security responsibility for West Bank cities to Mr. Abbas, something that close aides of the Palestinian President have said would be a significant gesture to bring peace closer.
Government sources said ... [the step] was premature. "They first have to have an effective security service in place," one official said.
The officials speculated that Palestinian leaks to the press about an imminent handover of the cities seemed designed to pressure Israel to do so.
While transferring security control of cities in the West Bank to the PA could ultimately take place, it is currently not even on the table, one official said.