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Israel Rules Out Palestinian Prisoner Release for Muslim Holiday


Israel has ruled out the release of Palestinian prisoners ahead of a major Muslim holiday. As Robert Berger reports from VOA's Jerusalem bureau, releasing prisoners is a charged issue for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Israel usually releases Palestinian prisoners for the Muslim holiday of Id al Adha, but not this year. Officials say it would be inappropriate to free hundreds of prisoners, while Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit is being held captive in the Gaza Strip.

Gunmen from the ruling Islamic militant group Hamas kidnapped Shalit six months ago. So far, Israel has rejected Hamas demands to release 1,400 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit.

"If Israel will make the major mistake, and accept the terms the Palestinians are suggesting, the result will be an enormous encouragement of terrorism," says Israeli analyst Dan Schueftan, "because it basically means you can have terrorism against Israel with impunity."

At their first summit meeting a week ago, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that he would consider his request for a prisoner release. Mr. Olmert pondered a goodwill gesture because he wants to strengthen Mr. Abbas, who is locked in a violent power struggle with Hamas. But the Israeli leader decided against a prisoner release because of opposition from his Cabinet and the public.

Palestinian legislator Abdullah Abdullah, from the Fatah party led by Mr. Abbas, described the decision as a setback.

"There is no seriousness on the part of the Israeli government," said Abdullah, "and it's only trying to do public relations to the outer world, and not to the relations that are very important between Israel and Palestine."

Fatah officials say a prisoner release would strengthen Mr. Abbas because it would show the Palestinian people the tangible benefits of the peace process. But Mr. Olmert fears a public backlash in Israel if alleged terrorists go free while a 19-year-old Israeli soldier remains in captivity.