Israeli official advocates release of prominent Palestinian prisoner

Monday, February 5th 2007, 6:27 am
By: News On 6

JERUSALEM (AP) _ An influential Israeli Cabinet minister called Monday for Israel to release Marwan Barghouti _ a hugely popular Palestinian leader jailed on murder charges _ in an effort to prop up Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his rivalry with Hamas.

Abbas' moderate Fatah party and the Islamic militant Hamas have engaged in bitter fighting since Hamas won parliamentary elections last year, dividing the Palestinian government. More than 130 Palestinians have been killed in the fighting, including three who died Monday from wounds sustained in recent days.

Repeated efforts to form a national unity government have foundered, but Abbas and Hamas exiled leader Khaled Mashaal are to meet in the holy Muslim city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to attempt to reach a power-sharing agreement and end the fighting.

Many see the meeting as a last chance for the Palestinians to avoid civil war.

``If this meeting (in Mecca) fails, then no one will try to mediate again,'' warned Palestinian analyst Ali Jerbawi.

The latest round of Gaza fighting eased Monday after the two sides agreed to a new truce Sunday evening.

The streets of Gaza City were again busy, as shops reopened and police cars patrolled the streets to maintain order.

Hamas and Fatah officials accused each other of leaving roadblocks up in violation of the deal, and small clashes erupted between the two sides Monday, but no injuries were reported.

Fatah gunmen also kidnapped Arafat Said, a top official in the Hamas-led Interior Ministry, and shot and wounded another Hamas official in the West Bank city of Ramallah, security officials said. The gunmen said they would exchange Said for the kidnapped nephew of Fatah's Gaza strongman, Mohammed Dahlan.

With the situation in Gaza still shaky, the head of Israel's Shin Bet security service, Yuval Diskin, told reporters Monday that Israel should not get involved in the Palestinian infighting, though there might come a point when Israel will need to act.

Earlier Monday, Israeli Environment Minister Gideon Ezra called for the release of Barghouti, the popular Palestinian leader who is widely regarded as the only figure able to unify the clashing factions, rein in militants and get peacemaking with Israel moving again.

``If we want to blunt Hamas' capabilities ... and if we ultimately want a civil rather than a religious government like those taking shape across the Arab world, we have to make a contribution,'' Ezra, an ally of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, told Army Radio.

Olmert's spokeswoman Miri Eisin said the release of Barghouti _ who is serving five life sentences in the murders of four Israelis and a Greek monk _ was ``not on the agenda.''

But Ezra, the second Israeli official to call for Barghouti's release in recent weeks, said Israel has freed ``much worse murderers.''

Meanwhile, Abbas aides said they would meet with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Washington this week to prepare for a Mideast summit, which is intended to restart the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

The envoys will tell Rice that the Palestinians oppose further interim arrangements, said Yasser Abed Rabbo, an aide to Abbas.

The last peace effort, the internationally backed ``road map,'' has foundered as both Israel and the Palestinians failed to live up to their initial commitments. The Palestinians have not cracked down on militant groups and Israel has not removed scores of unauthorized settlement outposts in the West Bank.

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Monday that his office was preparing to dismantle the outposts, but he gave no details of numbers or a timeframe.

Peretz said he told Olmert that attempts to negotiate voluntary evacuation of the outposts with settler leaders had failed and he would therefore start preparing for forced evictions.

Also Monday defense officials said Israel approved development of a missile defense system to combat rocket attacks from Lebanese guerrillas and Palestinian militants.

The laser-based system, being developed by state-owned weapons maker Rafael, is expected to be ready in about two years. It was chosen over other Israeli competitors and Lockheed Martin Corp.'s Skyshield system, which proposes using 35mm cannons to intercept incoming rockets.