Palestinians freed, but barrier path still draws ire

Israel released 500 Palestinian prisoners Monday, a day after approving Gaza pullout.

The hope and skepticism among Palestinians over whether the current cease-fire can expand into peace is coloring reactions to Israel's release of 500 Palestinian prisoners Monday.

The step freed 118 administrative detainees who were never charged with any crime - as well as men convicted by military courts of crimes including shootings, possession of weapons, or ties to terrorist organizations.

It came a day after Israel's cabinet finalized the path of the controversial separation barrier and gave the final go-ahead to withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

These steps are all unilateral ones by Israel. Despite conciliatory pronouncements since a summit meeting in Egypt between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas two weeks ago, the two sides have yet to develop a solid cooperative relationship.

Mohammed Harbieh was one of those to gain freedom in the largest Israeli release in a decade. He was set free halfway through a five-year sentence given after he was convicted of involvement in a shooting. Before leaving prison, he signed a pledge not to enter Israeli territory or to be involved with "terrorist organizations."

"This is a good step because it has made many hearts happy and that is what is really needed - to keep people's hopes up," he says of the release.

In Mr. Harbieh's view, there is a real chance to move toward peace. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, he says, "wants peace and Israel has an obligation to help him. One step by him, one step by the other side, and it will lead to further releases. If Israel does not provoke the Palestinians, the cease-fire will hold and this process can go on."

But Badiya Diab, the mayor of Hadidiya village, near Hebron, who was also released Monday, says the release is cause for despair, not joy, and a sign of Israeli bad faith. "I feel very badly about this release because the list of prisoners did not include those who have spent many years in prison." Mr. Diab adds that he leaves behind in prison a son, a brother, and four cousins.

Israel, for its part, says there is a limit to its gestures as long as Mr. Abbas has not moved to crack down on militant groups. He has preferred instead to negotiate them into a cease-fire.

"The prisoner release is not just a goodwill gesture, it is intended so that the Palestinians make good on their pledges. The more they do, the more they will get," says Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Israel's last prisoner release, in 2003, was bitterly dismissed by the Palestinian Authority as inadequate for being mostly people near the end of their sentences and for falling short of the number expected.

Issa Karakeh, head of the Palestinian Prisoners Club and a Fatah activist, says of the release: "It does not tackle the main problem. There are hundreds who've been for years in prison, people handicapped, people with diseases, children. There are 800 administrative detainees of whom only 118 are being released. This is a unilateral step, as if there is no Palestinian partner. The Palestinian partner did not take part in compiling the lists."

But Mr. Karakeh later sounded more hopeful about the release, saying: "The Palestinian people have been living for the last four years in a bloody confrontation and this release could be the beginning of tranquility and negotiations to lead to the end of the agony if there is enough goodwill on both sides."

The PA is demanding that the next release, to include 400 people in about two months, include prisoners serving long sentences for attacks against Israelis.

Mr. Gissin does not rule out some such individuals, but says: "There will be no wholesale release of people with blood on their hands."

Monday's release came amid Palestinian criticism of the Israeli cabinet's approval of a revised route for the West Bank separation barrier. The new route encompasses less West Bank land than the original path in deference to an Israeli supreme court ruling, yet it takes in the several settlement blocs. Israel's housing minister, Yitzhak Herzog, says he hopes to connect Maale Adumim to the capital by building new settlements.

While the Sharon government has said the barrier is for security purposes only and that it could be moved in a political settlement, Labor party minister Matan Vilnai said after the vote on the barrier route: "There is no doubt it will influence the final borders of Israel."

Israeli officials have said they have Washington's backing in retaining the settlement blocs in the West Bank under any future peace deal. President Bush affirmed in a letter to Sharon last year that "new realities" in the West Bank - meaning concentrations of Israeli settlers - would have to be taken into account in determining borders between Israel and a Palestinian state.

Samir Zedan contributed to this article.

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