|Israeli PM Ariel Sharon, left, cabinet secretary Israel Maimon, second from left, Vice PM Shimon Peres, third from left, Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz, right, attend weekly cabinet meeting |
Israel's cabinet approved the release of 400 Palestinian prisoners, as part of a cease-fire agreement reached nearly four months ago. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said it's a goodwill gesture to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
"We must strengthen the moderate elements of the Palestinian Authority," Mr. Sharon told Cabinet ministers.
Israel agreed to release 900 Palestinian prisoners under a truce agreement reached in Egypt in February. It freed 500 prisoners right away, but the release of the remaining 400 was postponed after Israel accused Mr. Abbas of failing to keep his part of the deal to crackdown on militants.
But with the violent Islamic militant group Hamas poised to make a strong showing in Palestinian parliamentary elections in July, Israel wants to strengthen Mr. Abbas. The cabinet vote was 18 to three. Among the dissenters was former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"The Palestinians made a commitment to take action against terrorist groups, but they have failed," Mr. Netanyahu said. "I don't see any reason to reward them."
Palestinian officials said the release of 400 prisoners is not enough. Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said there are more than 7,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails.
"We have to concentrate all our efforts to see all our prisoners to be free and to be released," said Mr. Qureia.
Mahmoud Abbas has told Israel that he needs the release of thousands of prisoners to show his people the benefits of peace and strengthen his grip on power.
But prisoner releases are not popular in Israel, where most people have family or friends who were killed or wounded in terrorist attacks. So Israel says prisoners with Jewish blood on their hands will not go free.