- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 10, 2003

JERUSALEM — Despite turmoil within the Palestinian leadership, Israeli and Palestinian officials met yesterday to discuss an impasse over the release of prisoners, a flash point that threatens to undermine a truce declared almost two weeks ago.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan met at an Israel-Gaza Strip crossing point, where they were to discuss the prisoners and other issues.

Palestinians demand that Israel release all of the estimated 7,000 prisoners it holds. Otherwise, militant groups threaten to cancel the truce. Israel, noting that release of prisoners is not part of the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan, has agreed to release only a few hundred as a goodwill gesture.

The Mofaz-Dahlan meeting was in doubt throughout the day because of Palestinian infighting, partly over the prisoners issue.

Yasser Arafat appeared to be trying to reassert more control over Palestinian diplomacy through his Fatah movement, as Palestinian officials and militants criticized Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas over his handling of the prisoner issue.

A statement from the Fatah Revolutionary Council said the advisory body within Mr. Arafat’s Fatah movement would meet on a regular basis “to enable [it] to assume its leading role in drawing up the movement’s policies and follow up the implementation of its decisions,” the Palestine Media Center said.

Under the law creating the position of prime minister, passed in April, Mr. Arafat’s Fatah leadership retains final say in talks with Israel. The latest Fatah statement, pledging constant supervision of Mr. Abbas, indicates Mr. Arafat will retain hands-on involvement, despite an Israeli and U.S. boycott over charges he is tainted with terrorism.

Earlier this week, Mr. Abbas threatened to resign as prime minister unless Fatah endorsed his handling of contacts with Israel. However, on Wednesday he said he would not step down.

Mr. Abbas also quit the Fatah Central Committee, but the Media Center, an arm of the Palestinian Information Ministry, said the body unanimously rejected his resignation.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said yesterday the leadership crisis was over. However, internal disagreements remained over how to deal with the prisoner issue.

Mr. Abbas has been criticized by Palestinian officials and militants who accuse him of not being tough enough on the prisoner-release issue. Mr. Abbas called off a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that had been set for Wednesday.

Media reports say Mr. Arafat is also unhappy with Mr. Dahlan’s growing power. Mr. Arafat vetoed his appointment as interior minister but Mr. Abbas turned control of the Interior Ministry, which commands security forces, over to Mr. Dahlan anyway.

Mr. Dahlan said yesterday he and Mr. Mofaz would discuss the crisis over the estimated 7,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel and the Palestinian demand that Israel withdraw from more Palestinian cities and towns. Israeli forces have already pulled out of key parts of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Bethlehem.

Mr. Dahlan said the prisoner issue “is a major matter for … the Palestinian people.”

A high-level Egyptian delegation was in Gaza, meeting with leaders of the factions, trying to solidify the truce. However, Hamas and Islamic Jihad would not commit to halting attacks against Israelis beyond three months. Fatah has called a six-month truce. All three factions point to the prisoner issue as the main sticking point.

U.S. officials have been meeting with Palestinian and Israeli officials to resolve the prisoner dispute, and Israel Radio reported yesterday that Israel was considering releasing at least some members of the Islamic groups.

As the Israeli-Palestinian talks were in progress yesterday, the military said three Palestinians crossed the security fence and tried to enter an Israeli village outside northern Gaza. Not far away, one Palestinian crossed the fence from Gaza into Israel and approached another village.

Soldiers stopped the attempts, wounding two Palestinians and capturing all four.

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