U.S. May Push Israel On Prisoners

Palestinian children shout anti Israeli slogans as they hold posters of Marwan Barghouti, an uprising leader from Fatah jailed by Israel, during a demonstration calling to release Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, at the Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, Wednesday, July 9, 2003
AP
The United States planned to ask Israel to release more Palestinian prisoners to ease a crisis within the Palestinian leadership that prompted Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to threaten to quit, Israel's Army Radio said Wednesday.

The report said the U.S. special envoy to the region, John Wolf, would meet Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz later Wednesday to press Israel to release more Palestinian prisoners and dismantle more illegal settlement outposts in an effort to bolster peace moves.

U.S. and Israeli officials would not immediately confirm the meeting.

On Tuesday, Abbas threatened to resign unless his party backed his tactics in talks with Israelis, Palestinian officials said. The three largest Palestinian militant groups declared a unilateral cease-fire on June 29, but say it will collapse unless Israel releases the bulk of thousands of Palestinian prisoners it holds.

Meanwhile, a raid by Israeli troops West Bank village in search of a wanted Palestinian militant, who the army said was planning an imminent attack, threatened the cease-fire, reports CBS News Correspondent Robert Berger.

The military said troops were shot at and returned fire, killing the brother of the wanted man, who was armed. It said Iyad Halanesh's brother was implicated in several attacks, including the June 30 killing of a Bulgarian truck driver near Jenin. Palestinian sources said Halanesh's wife was wounded during the operation.

Palestinian militant groups warned that if Israel continues such raids, they will nullify the cease-fire. Israel said it will protect its citizens, and terrorists will not be immune.

On Tuesday, as internal tensions rose in the Palestinian leadership, Abbas called off a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon set for Wednesday. Some officials blamed Israel's refusal to release more prisoners and others citing lack of support for Abbas from fellow political leaders.

Also Tuesday, in a largely symbolic gesture, Abbas resigned from the Central Committee of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, said Hakam Balaawi, a Fatah official. In his decades as Arafat's deputy in Fatah and the PLO, Abbas has resigned or threatened to resign many times. Fatah insiders said this time, too, it was a ploy to force Fatah to back him.

Fatah has been in turmoil over its declaration of a cease-fire 10 days ago. The moves also applies to its affiliated militia, the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades.

Fatah officials were trying to persuade Abbas to withdraw his resignation. Militant groups, with backing from some Fatah activists, criticized Abbas for not pressing Israel harder for release of Palestinian prisoners.

In a letter to Arafat, Abbas said he would step down as premier unless he received clear instructions from Fatah over how to handle contacts with Israel.

Fatah officials said Abbas' move might be a pressure tactic aimed at forcing Fatah members to give him greater flexibility in the talks.

The United States rallied to his support. "We stand behind Prime Minister Abbas," State Department spokesman Philip T. Reeker said. The U.S. administration pushed for his appointment in April as an alternative to Arafat.

Israel refuses to free detainees involved directly in terror attacks, including members of the violent Islamic groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Abbas is said to be concerned that if Israel sticks by its refusal, the two groups might cancel their three-month truce. Fatah called a six-month cease-fire.

Interviewed on Israel TV on Tuesday, the chief of Israeli military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, did not rule out the release of some members of the Islamic groups, saying the matter was too sensitive to be discussed on television.

However, he insisted that Israel must not release prisoners tied to terrorism. "It is forbidden to free terrorists with blood on their hands," he said.

Israel has had painful experiences with prisoner releases in the past.

In 1992, Israel expelled 415 Hamas activists to Lebanon, some from their prison cells. A year later, under international pressure, Israel repatriated them, and many resumed their leading positions in the violent movement — with the added benefit of training in explosives and other terror techniques from the Lebanese Hezbollah during their year in exile.

In 1985, Israel freed 1,150 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for three soldiers captured in Lebanon, then watched as many of them took leading roles in the first violent Palestinian uprising in 1987.

Israel is holding about 7,000 Palestinian prisoners, most of them rounded up during the current 33-month conflict.