Israel will free 400 Palestinian prisoners on Thursday, an Israeli defense ministry source said. The release will be carried out in cooperation between the defense ministry and the Israel Prison Service.

Palestinian Authority sources have denied Israeli claims that the release was coordinated, saying it was an Israeli unilateral decision.  

Israel to free some veteran prisoners with “blood on hands”

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has instructed Justice Minister Tzipi Livni to prepare for the release of elderly and sick veteran Palestinian prisoners who have been jailed since before the 1993 Oslo accords even if convicted with attacks in which Israelis were hurt, Israeli official source said on Monday evening.

The source also said that Sharon informed the cabinet of this Sunday before it approved the release of 400 security prisoners.

The Palestinian Authority has constantly demanded the release of veteran prisoners.

Also, Israel is preparing for the return of those Palestinians who were exiled from Bethlehem to Europe and the Gaza Strip after they holed up in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity in 2002.

Israeli Cabinet Okays release of 400 Palestinian prisoners

The Israeli cabinet approved Sunday the release of 400 Palestinian, representing the second dispatch of the 900 prisoners Israel promised to release during the February Sharm’s summit.

Only three of the ministers opposed the release of prisoners, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Health Minister Danny Naveh and Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told ministers at the opening of the weekly cabinet meeting that the release aims at bolstering the moderate Palestinian leadership.

"Those who believe that the coming month’s events could strengthen the hands of radical terror forces surely understand the need to strengthen moderate parts in the Palestinian Authority and to abide by our commitments," Sharon said.

"I think the Palestinian committed themselves to act against terrorism and terror groups, and I think they have failed in both tasks," Netanyahu responded. 

400 prisoners likely to be freed next week

The Israeli government is set Sunday to approve the release of 400 Palestinian prisoners in the framework of the Sharm al-Shaeikh Sharon-Abbas agreement made in February.

According to Israeli media sources, the release criteria would allow releasing prisoners who have not served two-thirds of their sentence, but won’t include any prisoners, described by Israeli security as "with blood on their hands"

One day before Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas departed to Washington, Israeli Prime Minister pledged to fulfill the Sharm al-Shaeikh commitment and release the 400 prisoners he had agreed to release. Sharon also pledged to allow West Bank deportees to return back to their homes.

Palestinian Authority officials have requested that Israel revise the criteria of releasing prisoners, allowing the release of pre-Oslo, sick, child and female prisoners.

According to Israeli media latest reports, the Israeli ministerial committee for prisoners’ release issue removed only one of the criteria conditions; saying that a considerable number of prisoners slated for release have not completed two-thirds of their sentence.

The same source said that the prisoners may be released as early as this coming weekend.

The agreement for the release of 900 Palestinian detainees was reached in the Sharm el-Sheikh summit in February.

Israel has already released 500 prisoners, including four female detainees, back in February.

Most of the then released prisoners were either administrative detainees (held behind bars without proper legal procedures) or prisoners who have almost completed their sentence terms.

Palestinians described the first prisoners’ release as "not serious" and "insignificant", considering it to be a "slap on the face" to President Abbas.

Since February, Israel has frozen the process of releasing the remaining 400 prisoners, and later on the process of handing over West Bank cities to PA security authority.

During the past two weeks, Israeli and Palestinian officials held a couple of meetings to discuss the criteria of releasing more prisoners, but failed to arrive at an agreement.

Israel has apparently decided to unilaterally choose prisoners based on a criteria set by heads of Israeli security branches.
 
Once the Israeli government approves the release in principle, the list of detainees would be forwarded to the ministerial committee for prisoner release affairs, which is expected to confirm the names.

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