Israel's Olmert Vows to Set Free 250 Palestinian Prisoners

By Mark Lavie
Associated Press
Tuesday, November 18, 2008

JERUSALEM, Nov. 17 -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised Monday to release 250 Palestinian prisoners, a goodwill gesture to the moderate Palestinian Authority president at a summit overshadowed by violence in the Gaza Strip that threatens a cease-fire.

Even as Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas met in Jerusalem, Gaza fighters were firing rockets, underlining that the Palestinian leader has little influence in the seaside territory. Supporters of the armed Islamist movement Hamas overran Gaza last year, expelling forces loyal to Abbas.

After a relatively effective five-month cease-fire, the armed groups in Gaza have fired dozens of rockets into southern Israel in recent weeks. The Israeli military is conducting small armed incursions and airstrikes.

At least 17 Palestinian gunmen have been killed over the past two weeks, and Israel has clamped a punishing blockade on Gaza, drying up vital supplies.

An aide to Abbas said the Palestinian Authority president called on Olmert to ease the restrictions. On Monday, Israel allowed 30 truckloads of food and medicine and a limited amount of diesel fuel into Gaza. Officials with the United Nations said that would allow them to resume distribution to 750,000 needy Palestinians.

Israeli and Hamas leaders have said they hope the Egyptian-mediated truce can be preserved, but Israel has threatened to strike hard if the rocket fire persists.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that Israel is ready to attack Gaza, but that it would not make a hasty decision. "There is always a need to consider the wider picture before Israel starts using its immense military force," he told a gathering of North American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem.

Responding to criticism that the truce has allowed Hamas to rearm, Barak said he does not regret "any single month" of quiet on the border. The truce was preceded by a year of constant rocket attacks that disrupted the lives of tens of thousands of Israelis.

Olmert and Abbas have been meeting regularly over the past year to discuss peace efforts.

The planned prisoner release would be the latest in a series of Israeli gestures meant to bolster Abbas in his conflict with Hamas. The release is meant to coincide with a Muslim holiday next month, and all of the prisoners will be from Abbas's Fatah movement, Israeli officials said.

The prisoner issue is sensitive in Palestinian society. Israel holds more than 9,000 Palestinian prisoners, and nearly every Palestinian has a relative, friend or neighbor who has served time. Although Olmert has carried out similar prisoner releases, the Palestinians maintain they should be larger in scope.

Olmert and Abbas relaunched peace talks a year ago with the goal of reaching a final agreement by December.

Both sides have acknowledged they will not meet that target, but said they hope to lay the foundation for further talks after Olmert leaves office early next year to battle corruption allegations. Elections are scheduled for Feb. 10.

The military said 11 rockets and a mortar shell were fired from Gaza at Israel on Monday by sundown, causing some damage but no casualties.

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