A group representing Israeli victims of Palestinian violence is mounting a court challenge against the planned release on Friday of 256 prisoners.
Israeli Cabinet ministers yesterday approved the list of Palestinian prisoners to be freed in a gesture of support for moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
In a separate development, Israel yesterday freed Nasser Shaer of Hamas, the education minister in the Cabinet dismissed by Abbas after the Gaza takeover.
Shaer was arrested in May and held in administrative detention, which is imprisonment without trial.
Shaer told reporters his release was unconditional, though the Israelis made it clear they “do not welcome any prohibited or political action, whether regional or international. In any case, we do not represent certain factions, we represent our people”.
The military said he was released after he signed a statement renouncing membership to Hamas and pledging not to hold positions in the Palestinian Authority on behalf of Hamas or “any other illegal organisation”.
Most of the 256 to be freed on Friday are members of Abbas’ Fatah movement, which is locked in a power struggle with the Islamic Hamas. None are from Hamas.
Prominent among the prisoners is Abdel Rahim Malouh, second in command of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which carried out the assassination of Israeli Cabinet Minister Rehavam Zeevi in 2001.
Malouh, who is about 60 years old and is said to be ill, was arrested in 2003. Malouh, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s executive committee, is considered close to Abbas and could serve as a mediator with Hamas.
Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen, has refused to talk to Hamas since its forces took over the Gaza Strip in mid-June, leaving Abbas in control of the West Bank.
Announcement of the prisoner release was made after an Abbas-Olmert summit on Monday – for the second time. Israel had already agreed to free 250 prisoners at the previous summit, last month in Egypt.
Olmert’s office said none of the 256, including six women, were directly involved in carrying out attacks against Israelis.
Israeli groups are planning to try to stop the release. Almagor, representing families of victims of terrorist attacks, said it would appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court to stop it. On its website, Almagor says that 179 Israelis have been killed since 2000 by Palestinians freed in previous deals. Appeals against previous prisoner releases have had little effect.
Israeli Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, a former head of the Shin Bet internal security service, supported the release. “This is certainly an acceptable risk Israel is taking in order to strengthen the regime of Abu Mazen,” he said after touring a prison in Israel’s southern Negev Desert, where some of the Palestinian prisoners are being held.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat carefully praised the release, saying freedom for any Palestinian prisoners is welcome, but he urged Israel to free more of them. Israel holds about 10,500 Palestinian prisoners.
Criticism came from the Palestinian minister for prisoner affairs, Ashraf al-Ajrami. “Israel insists on releasing those who have limited sentences,” al-Ajrami said. “We want a release of prisoners who received long sentences.”
In the past, Israel has won little credit from Palestinians for freeing prisoners, as Palestinians complain that not enough were freed and demand that the most prominent detainees be let go.
Those would include some convicted in deadly attacks, like West Bank Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life terms after murder convictions. Israel has always refused to free prisoners they say have “blood on their hands”.