- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 29, 2005

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s Cabinet decided yesterday to free 400 Palestinian prisoners, but the overdue gesture — part of a February truce — disappointed Palestinians, who said Israel broke a promise to coordinate the release with them.

The truce has greatly reduced violence, but the seeds of renewed conflict were evident yesterday when three Palestinians were killed in two Gaza blasts — one while firing at Israelis and two by explosives they were handling.

The truce emerged from a Feb. 8 summit in Egypt with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. The package included an end to violence, the turnover of five West Bank towns to Palestinian control and release of 900 prisoners.

Israel freed 500 prisoners and handed over two towns, but stopped the process at that point, charging that the Palestinians had failed to carry out their pledge to disarm the militants in the towns under their control. Also, Israel complained, Palestinian militants still attempt many attacks that are foiled by Israeli security.

Israel’s government demanded the Palestinians fulfill their obligations to Israel’s satisfaction before any further steps. Palestinians countered that Israel was violating the truce and endangering the cease-fire.

The turnaround came yesterday, when Mr. Sharon told his Cabinet that Israel must release the remaining 400 prisoners “as part of Israel’s effort to help Abu Mazen and the moderate Palestinian forces.” Abu Mazen is a nickname for Mr. Abbas.

Three ministers voted against the release, insisting that all violence must stop first, but 18 were in favor.

A ministerial panel now will compile a list of those eligible to be freed. No one directly involved in deadly attacks on Israelis would be released, but Israel might be more flexible than in the past. Justice Ministry spokesman Jacob Galanti said the release could come on Thursday.

Palestinians criticized the decision, saying Israel had broken its agreement to consult them about which prisoners to release.

The Palestinians demanded the release of 360 prisoners, but Israel refused to release prisoners who had been involved in violence, said Issa Karake, a member of a Palestinian committee that was to have negotiated the release.

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