Israel agrees to release terror detainees

Special to World
Friday, July 11, 2003

JERUSALEM Israel has agreed to a U.S. request to release detainees from Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Israeli officials said the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has pledged to release an undetermined number of Hamas and Islamic Jihad members from Israeli prisons over the next few weeks. They said Hamas would be included in an Israeli program to release Palestinian detainees who have not been convicted of killing Israelis.

Officials said several hundred Hamas detainees, most of them clerics, could be released under the commitment relayed by the Sharon government. Nearly 7,000 Palestinians were said to be detained in Israeli jails and the Palestinian Authority has been calling for a release of all of the prisoners.

Last week, the Sharon government said it would not release Hamas or Islamic Jihad prisoners. The government assertion had sparked warnings that Hamas would not honor its commitment to suspend attacks against Israel for the next three months.

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"We always had a fall-back position that took into account whether Hamas or Islamic Jihad would honor the ceasefire," an Israeli government source said. "At this point, there appears to be a Hamas commitment to honor the ceasefire."

On Monday, Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Israel in which two people were killed. The bomber was reported to have been sent from the northern West Bank city of Jenin.

Officials said the commitment to release Hamas and Jihad prisoners was relayed on Wednesday during a meeting between Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer. They said Mofaz said the government would examine the feasibility of including Hamas and Jihad members in the first stage of a prisoner release.

The Sharon government has already agreed to release up to 400 Palestinians in the first stage of a prisoner release. Officials said more than 2,000 Palestinians would be eligible for release.

Officials said the PA has arrested some Palestinian operatives and encouraged residents to prevent insurgents from finding safe haven in their communities. But an Israeli military intelligence report said Hamas has used the ceasefire to bolster its forces and weapons industry in the Gaza Strip.

The report, based on information provided by the military's Southern Command, said Hamas has increased production of its Kassam-class short-range missiles, recruitment of suicide bombers and other insurgents. The insurgents and weaponry have been moved along the north-south highway in the Gaza Strip, which has been reopened to Palestinian traffic, the report said.

"They [Hamas] will try to increase their strength," Maj. Gen. Doron Almog, outgoing head of Southern Command, said. "It's not only military reinforcement. It is also political reinforcement to seize power."

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