A new batch of 250 Palestinians prisoners will be freed, approved the Israeli cabinet. They will be released in the occupied West Bank before the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, said Israeli officials on Sunday.
During a meeting with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, Ehud Olmert, the acting Israeli prime minister, has promised to free the prisoners on November 17.
“This is a confidence-building measure”, said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Olmert.
Israel will release prisoners from the Fatah faction and other non-Islamist groups, added Mr Regev.
Now the names of those to be freed will be drawn up by a special committee, following criteria that rule out the release of prisoners “with Jewish blood on their hands”.
Israelis will also be able to lodge objections to any candidates identified for release.
None of the prisoners to be freed belongs to Hamas, the Palestinian faction that controls the Gaza Strip, said a senior Israeli official.
However Israel has not said whether it would consider freeing Fatah inmates like Marwan Barghouthi, the leader of the last Palestinian uprising, who is seen as a possible successor to Abbas.
‘Border crossings remain closed’
In August, 198 Palestinian prisoners were freed by Israel. More than 11,000 Palestinians are still held in Israeli prisons.
As Palestinians regard prisoners as symbols of resistance to Israeli occupation, such releases are highly emotive.
Calling the gesture “very dangerous, strange and dubious”, Eli Yishai, the trade and industry minister, from the ultra-Orthdox Shas party, voted against the release.
Little sign of progress came from the US-sponsored peace talks between Olmert and Abbas, rejected by Hamas.
While offering to release prisoners, Israel is making a major incursion into the Gaza Strip in order to combat Palestinian rocket attacks.
“Following mortar and rocket fire, the border crossings we had expected to open will remain closed”, said Shlomo Dror, the defence ministry spokesman, on Sunday.
On Saturday, the Israeli military said that its soldiers have battled Palestinian fighters along Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip.
After an Israeli air raid and Palestinian rocket fire on November 4, clashes have continued at relatively low levels.
Israel and Hamas officials insist they are committed to maintaining the truce, though Ehud Olmert said it has been “shattered”.
Hajj visa dispute
At the same time, Gaza-based Hamas authorities have threatened to prevent Muslim pilgrims from leaving the territory to attend the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, unless a dispute over visas is resolved.
Only pilgrims whose Saudi visa applications are submitted through the Palestinian Authority will be allowed to enter Egypt from Gaza.
Egypt has refused to recognise the lists of pilgrims submitted by Hamas to the Saudi authorities for visa approval.
Al Jazeera’s Sherine Tadros said: “For another day those pilgrims tried to cross the Rafah border and were turned back again by the Hamas controlled security forces.
“Hamas has several reasons technical and legal for not allowing the pilgrims through … of course we have a standoff here and there is mounting anger and frustration by these pilgrims who feel they are caught in the middle between this political struggle between Hamas and Fatah”, she said.
In Gaza, the great concern still is the worsening humanitarian situation.Since the flare-up of violence on November 4, Israel has allowed food into the Gaza Strip for only three days and tightenned its blockade of the aid-dependent territory.