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Israel Considers Release of Nearly 600 Palestinian Prisoners - 2003-07-25

Israel has increased to nearly 600 the number of Palestinian prisoners it is considering for release. Included on the list are members of Islamic groups that are opposed to Israel's existence.

The Israeli security service has provided the names of almost 600 Palestinian prisoners it says should be eligible for release.

This is nearly double the original list of 350 drawn up last month.

Israeli officials say the enlarged list now includes those who have committed more serious offenses, as well as those who belong to the militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both of which are dedicated to Israel's destruction.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has identified the release of Palestinian prisoners as one of the steps needed to give momentum to peace efforts with Israel, and the expanded list should prove helpful in persuading Palestinians that he can win concessions from Israel.

The issue is currently in the hands of an Israeli ministerial Cabinet committee, which will make recommendations to the full Cabinet.

Israeli officials say a final decision on who will be released will probably be made only after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon returns from Washington next week.

He is due to meet President Bush at the White House on Tuesday.

Ahead of his visit, the Israel Army is preparing to introduce a series of humanitarian measures to ease the plight of the Palestinians.

Israeli officials say the proposed measures are likely to include the removal of some roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank and allowing the free flow of Palestinian traffic on some major thoroughfares.

Meanwhile, Israeli soldiers on Friday mistakenly shot and killed a five-year-old Palestinian boy in the northern West Bank. Israeli Radio reported that the incident occurred when a soldier in an armored personnel carrier accidentally fired at a passing car.