Jerusalem, July 27 (Reuters): Israel’s government approved a proposal by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon today to free 100 Islamic militants, a step intended to boost a US-backed peace plan and help the Palestinian Premier, political sources said.
The cabinet approved the decision in a 14-9 vote shortly before Sharon left for Washington, where he will discuss the peace road map with President George W. Bush on Tuesday. “This is a risk we are willing to take,” deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said before the vote.
In another gesture intended to smooth the way for Sharon’s visit, troops removed checkpoints near the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Hebron, opening the road to over 100 villages for the first time since a Palestinian uprising for statehood began.
The 100 members of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups who will be released were not involved in attacks on Israelis. They will be added to a list of several hundred Palestinians slated for release this week.
Sharon had until now balked at freeing any militants but wants to improve the standing of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, better known as Abu Mazen, under pressure from Islamic militants with whom he negotiated a truce last month. Israeli political sources said a total of 600 to 650 prisoners might be released this week. “The main aim here is to strengthen Abu Mazen’s standing,” one source said.
Palestinian information minister Nabil Amr welcomed the cabinet decision but called for more prisoners to be released.
“This is a positive step from the Israeli government and we hope that we will see more releases of further batches of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails,” he said.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad said all 6,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel should be freed. “We reject this position and we do not consider it an initiative by the Israeli government. It is like someone is trying to throw dust in our eyes,” said Mohammed al-Hindi, an Islamic Jihad leader in the Gaza Strip.