Prisoners released — to Abbas

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at a rally for Palestinians prisoners released by Israel, 20 July 2007. (Omar Rashidi/MaanImages)

JERUSALEM, 20 July (IPS) - In all 255 shackled Palestinian security prisoners boarded buses with windows darkened at the Ketziot prison in southern Israel Friday morning and began their ride northward to the West Bank town of Ramallah — and to freedom.

In Ramallah, at the headquarters of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, thousands of chanting Palestinians lifted the freshly released prisoners on their shoulders, before moving to a large open-sided tent to perform noon prayers.

“This is the beginning,” declared Abbas, referring to the almost 10,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails. “Our work must continue until every prisoner returns to his home.”

The vast majority of those freed Friday were from Abbas’ Fatah movement. The prisoner release is part of a series of gestures by Israel aimed at bolstering the Palestinian leader in the wake of the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip last month, during which the Islamic movement vanquished the more moderate Fatah forces. In recent weeks, Israel — encouraged by the West, which also wants to see Abbas, not Hamas, in the ascendancy — has agreed to other measures meant to strengthen the Palestinian leader.

Israeli troops will stop hunting 178 Fatah militants in the West Bank who have long been on the security forces’ ‘wanted’ list. The militants have, in turn, handed in their weapons to the Palestinian Authority and have signed an agreement saying they will no longer engage in attacks on Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has also begun transferring to Abbas some of the hundreds of millions of dollars in customs duties that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority and which it froze after Hamas, which refuses to recognize the Jewish state, came to power early in 2006.

Israeli officials said they hoped the gestures would ultimately help get long-stalled peace talks back on track. “We’re hopeful that the combined steps by the Israeli government and the Palestinian government can bring about a new period of cooperation and dialogue, that we have turned the corner on the negative dynamic,” said foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev.

It’s unlikely, though, that Israel’s confidence-building measures will reignite a serious dialogue. The gap in expectation between Olmert and Abbas is simply too wide.

“Your policy is a policy of small change. You do a little here, a little there,” Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Prime Minister appointed by Abbas after he ordered the disbanding of the Hamas-led government told the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronoth in an interview Friday. “Israel is a large, strong country. Israel can allow itself to be more bold.”

The Palestinians want to begin discussing the key issues at the heart of the conflict with Israel, like the future of Jerusalem, delineation of the borders of a Palestinian state, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. “The best thing to do is focus on substance at this meeting,” said Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Abbas, recently. He was referring to an idea being promoted by US President George W. Bush of a regional summit aimed at renewing peace talks. “We need this conference to focus on implementation, the transformation of words to deeds. That’s what will restore credibility to the peace process,” Erekat added.

But while Olmert is prepared to offer confidence-building gestures, he has no intention of discussing substantive issues like borders and refugees. A day after Bush delivered his policy speech on the Middle East, on 17 July, a spokeswoman for the Israeli prime minister said he would not engage in talks with Abbas that dealt with final status issues.

“Israel has openly stated that we’re willing to talk about issues of ‘political horizon’ and about how to achieve the vision of two states for two peoples,” said the spokeswoman, Miri Eisen. “But we have been very clear that we are not willing to discuss at this stage the three core issues of borders, refugees and Jerusalem.”

Hamas, not surprisingly, has rejected the summit idea and has criticized the amnesty agreement between Israel and Abbas, which includes only Fatah militants, as an attempt to divide the Palestinians. “We condemn this American conference which aims to serve the interests of the Zionist enemy,” said Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan.

Some Hamas leaders also said the amnesty deal was aimed at allowing Israeli forces to focus their attentions solely on Hamas. Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister in Gaza dismissed by Abbas but who still considers himself to hold the position, called the granting of amnesty to Fatah fugitives “political bribes” meant to sow dissension among the Palestinians.

In his policy speech, Bush said that once the “proper foundation” was in place, “we can soon begin serious negotiations toward the creation of a Palestinian state.” This seemed to indicate that the US leader was making a concession to Abbas, who has called for the two sides to move directly to talks about a final agreement and to skip the stage in the road map peace plan that calls first for the creation of a Palestinian state inside provisional borders.

But Olmert, who does not want to get involved in the type of substantive issues that talks on the creation of a Palestinian state would necessitate, will not be unduly concerned by the President’s speech. He will have also heard Bush say that the Palestinian Authority will have to root out “the terrorists” before there can be any substantial progress toward the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

There have been some reports that Olmert intends reviving his plan for a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank — or at least a watered-down version of that plan. But with Hamas having taken control of Gaza and Abbas desperately trying to win credibility among his own people, the Israeli leader, who himself is fighting for political survival, is unlikely to make concessions that go significantly beyond the gestures he has been dishing out in recent weeks.

All rights reserved, IPS - Inter Press Service (2007). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.