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Israel Says It Will Release More Than 400 Palestinian Prisoners

Israel's prime minister says more than 400 Palestinian prisoners could be released this month before an upcoming Middle East peace conference. VOA's Jim Teeple has details from our Jerusalem bureau.

Speaking before the parliamentary Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says plans to release about 400 Palestinian prisoners are intended as a confidence-building measure before a planned Mideast Peace conference, to be held in Annapolis, Maryland at the end of the month.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev says the goal is to boost Palestinian moderates like President Mahmoud Abbas.

"We are of course interested in showing the Palestinian leadership that moderation pays and this sort of confidence-building measure can help to energize a process of reconciliation that we really want," he said.

At the same time, Regev says Israel is unlikely to ease roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank that hinder the movement of Palestinians.

"Everyone I think understands, including the Palestinian leadership that if Israel moves in an irresponsible way - if we move too quickly and a security vacuum is created - then extremists - groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad will come into the vacuum they will launch a whole series of extremist and terrorist operations and that will kill the peace process," Regev said.

Palestinians have harshly criticized the restrictions on their movement. The head of the Palestinian negotiating team, former prime minister Ahmed Qureia, had to cancel a meeting Sunday with Israel's Foreign Minister because he could not pass through a West Bank checkpoint.

Saeb Erekat, another senior Palestinian negotiator told the Voice of Palestine radio that Palestinians will welcome their prisoners home, but negotiators had hoped that Israel would release up to 2,000 prisoners.

Erekat says unilateral actions like the prisoner release should be made in cooperation with the Palestinians as part of an overall agreement with the Palestinians to reduce tensions.

Erekat also rejected a demand made by Prime Minister Olmert on Monday that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Meanwhile about a half-a-dozen Palestinians were killed in the Gaza Strip on Monday when gunfire broke out at a rally called by the Fatah political organization to celebrate the third anniversary of the death former Palestinian President, Yasser Arafat. Fatah accused Hamas gunmen of firing on the rally, while Hamas accused Fatah of starting the shooting. It was the most serious outbreak of violence in the Gaza Strip since Hamas took over the territory in June.