- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 18, 2008

JERUSALEM

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday promised to release 250 Palestinian prisoners, a good-will gesture to the moderate Palestinian president at a summit overshadowed by ongoing violence in the Gaza Strip that threatens a cease-fire.

Even as Mr. Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met in Jerusalem, Gaza militants were firing rockets, underlining that Mr. Abbas has little influence in the seaside territory. Islamic Hamas militants overran the Gaza Strip last year, expelling forces loyal to Mr. Abbas.

After a relatively effective five-month cease-fire, violence has returned, with Gaza militants firing dozens of rockets and Israel undertaking small armed incursions and air strikes.

The military said by sundown, 11 rockets and a mortar shell were fired from Gaza at Israel on Monday, causing some damage but no casualties. Rockets exploded around the time that Britain’s foreign secretary, David Miliband, was visiting the rocket-scarred town of Sderot, near the border with Gaza.

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

An Abbas aide said the Palestinian leader called on Mr. Olmert to ease the restrictions. On Monday, Israel allowed 30 truckloads of food and medicine and a limited amount of diesel fuel into Gaza. U.N. officials said that would allow them to resume distribution to 750,000 needy Palestinians.

Both 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 Israel is ready to attack Gaza, but 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.

Mr. Olmert and Mr. 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 Mr. Abbas in his conflict with Hamas. The release is meant to coincide with a Muslim holiday next month, and all of the prisoners will come from Mr. Abbas’ Fatah movement, Israeli officials said.

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

Mr. Olmert and Mr. Abbas re-launched peace talks a year ago with the goal of reaching a final agreement by December 2008.

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

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