Israel has decided to release Palestinian detainees in a bid to advance the peace process. Robert Berger reports from the VOA bureau in Jerusalem.
Israel's Cabinet has approved the release of about 200 Palestinian prisoners in a goodwill gesture to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. In a change of policy, Israel will include two prisoners involved in deadly attacks on Israelis.
"We want the Palestinian people to understand that they can achieve far more for themselves through a process of dialogue, through a process of negotiation, through a process of reconciliation than the extremists can ever deliver for them," Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said.
The "extremists" is a reference to the Islamic militant group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip. Hamas has demanded that Israel release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for a captured Israeli soldier held for more than two years in Gaza.
Israel has refused so far, and, instead, is freeing prisoners to strengthen Mr. Abbas, who heads a more moderate Palestinian government in the West Bank.
The decision brought angry reaction from Israel's right-wing opposition. Parliamentarian Aryeh Eldad said it is a reward for terror.
"This is a real disgrace," Eldad said. "This government has blood on its hands, because they release these murderers that will go tomorrow to do more terror attacks on Israeli civilians, and the blame will be on the government."
Palestinian officials said the prisoner release is a step in the right direction.
Palestinian Minister for Prisoner Affairs Ashraf al-Ajrami told Israel Radio that the decision could build confidence, but he said it is not enough. There are 11,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, and Palestinian officials say they all should go free.