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Israel to Release 250 Imprisoned Fatah Members

The Israeli prime minister says he intends to free 250 Palestinian members of Fatah currently held in Israeli jails. The move is aimed at strengthening Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah movement has been routed from the Gaza strip. The announcement came at a special Middle East peace summit hosted by Egypt. VOA Cairo Correspondent Challiss McDonough has details.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the proposed prisoner release was a gesture of goodwill toward Palestinian President Abbas.

He said, "As a gesture of goodwill towards the Palestinians, I will bring before the Israeli Cabinet a proposal to free 250 Fatah prisoners, who do not have blood on their hands, after they sign a commitment not to return to violence."

The Israeli leader made the announcement in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, after talks with Mr. Abbas that also included the king of Jordan and the Egyptian president. The meeting was aimed at simultaneously boosting the peace process and strengthening the hand of Mr. Abbas and his Fatah movement in their struggle against Hamas.

Bitter fighting between the two groups in Gaza has essentially split the Palestinian territories in two, with Hamas in control of the Gaza Strip and Fatah controlling the West Bank.

At the meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak warned that any peace deal must include both territories.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called for a resumption of direct negotiations toward a final peace deal. He urged the Israelis to accept the Arab peace initiative that was recently re-launched in Riyadh.

He said, "We have a historic opportunity to establish the foundations of a just and comprehensive peace in the region, and to eradicate the reasons for violence, conflict, chaos and terrorism."

Hamas leader Ismail Haniya, whose Hamas-led Palestinian unity government was dismissed by Abbas, denounced the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting, and said it offered nothing but a mirage and illusions.

Both Egypt and Jordan have offered their full support to Mr. Abbas, since he dismissed the Hamas-led Palestinian unity government, following the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip. International donors have also said they will resume aid to the Palestinians, now that Mr. Abbas has formed a new emergency Palestinian government, without Hamas.

Analysts say both Jordan and Egypt are concerned that the Fatah-Hamas violence could spill over into their own countries.

Throughout the meeting, the assembled leaders referred to the ousting of Fatah from Gaza by Hamas as a coup d'etat.

Some newspaper columnists and other critics have condemned the show of support for Fatah, and they say Mr. Abbas's new Western-backed emergency government is illegitimate, since Hamas has most of the seats in Parliament.

As the summit approached, several messages from militant groups surfaced.

Hamas-affiliated militants in Gaza released an audio message from captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was seized in a cross-border raid exactly one year earlier. He said he needs medical treatment, and urged Israel to free Palestinian prisoners.

Al-Qaida deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri released a recording urging all Muslims to support Hamas.

And the captors of kidnapped British journalist Alan Johnston released a video showing the BBC correspondent wearing what he said was an explosive vest. He warned that his kidnappers would detonate the vest if any attempt were made to rescue him.