| Ariel Sharon
Jerusalem, July 6 (Reuters): The Israeli Cabinet set tough terms today for the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in a move that could rattle a US-backed peace plan recently bolstered by a militant truce and Israeli withdrawals.
“There is no way prisoners with blood on their hands will be released,” Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told his Cabinet as he read from a list of terms approved by a vote of 13-8, a senior government official said.
Under the criteria, Palestinians jailed for sending others to attack Israelis and members of militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad will remain locked up, the official said.
A senior Israeli official said several hundred would be freed gradually, a number far short of Palestinian demands for the release of all of the estimated 6,000 to 8,000 Palestinians held by Israel.
A top Palestinian official called the Cabinet decision “insufficient” and demanded the release of “serious and important” prisoners.
A major prisoner release would boost popularity of reformist PalestinianPrime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and help shore up a three-month ceasefire that militants declared a week ago in a nearly three-year-old uprising for statehood.
A limited release could jeopardise the truce.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad, groups that have killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings, have said that the suspension of their attacks was conditional on freedom for all prisoners.
The Cabinet session was followed by a three-hour meeting between Israeli defence minister Shaul Mofaz and Palestinian security affairs minister Mohammed Dahlan.
“The talks were held in a very positive atmosphere,” Mofaz said.
A senior Palestinian security official called the meeting “serious” and the dialogue “important”.
Dahlan said he raised the release of uprising leader Marwan Barghouthi, who is being tried by Israel on suspicion of involvement in the deaths of 26 Israelis, and easing of travel restrictions on Arafat.
The senior Palestinian official said Dahlan also demanded that Israel follow troop withdrawals from part of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Bethlehem by pulling out of three additional West Bank towns, including Ramallah and Hebron.
“We are ready to continue to hand over other cities,” Mofaz said.
“It will be done gradually, step by step, dependent on Palestinian readiness and fulfilment of the security commitments where they have already taken responsibility.”
The Palestinian official said Mofaz promised an Israeli response to Dahlan’s requests in a meeting scheduled for Wednesday between Sharon and Abbas.
Sharon has demanded that Abbas begin dismantling militant factions before Israel broadens pullbacks as part of a security agreement launching implementation of the US-backed peace plan called the “road map”.
Abbas has sought to avoid a confrontation with militants, saying it could lead to civil war.
Abbas and Sharon last week affirmed their commitment to the road map peace plan that charts the way to a Palestinian state by 2005, after endorsing it in a June 4 summit with President George W. Bush in Aqaba, Jordan.
At least 2,130 Palestinians and 760 Israelis have been killed in the 32-month uprising.