500 Terrorists to be Released This Week

A special ministerial committee approved this morning the release of 500 terrorist prisoners over the course of the coming week. None of them succeeded in having "blood on their hands."

, | updated: 11:48 AM

The release was decided upon as a gesture to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). A common theory in Israel is that Abu Mazen did not succeed in the past in reining in terrorism because Ariel Sharon denied him the "achievement" of having freed terrorist prisoners. As Sharon said in his speech at the Sharm a-Sheikh summit last week,
"I have no intention of missing this opportunity - because we must not let the new spirit, which grants our peoples hope, pass us by and leave us empty-handed. That is why we have acted quickly and with determination, with an understanding of the needs of the Palestinian side. Over the past few days, we reached a number of understandings with our Palestinian colleagues, which will enable us to grant both peoples tranquility and security for the near future..."

In addition, Israel will allow close to 70 exiled terrorists to return to their homes in Judea and Samaria. Most of them were exiled in May 2002 after they holed themselves up in a large Bethlehem church for over a month.

The 70 include some 50 who were exiled to Gaza, as well as a dozen who were expelled to various European countries, after the church standoff. Israel said it would not arrest them upon their return to the country - though according to some reports, not all of the European exiles would be necessarily allowed to return. Another 20 or so were sent to Gaza after they committed various terrorist crimes during the course of the Oslo War. They must all sign an agreement committing themselves not to return to their terrorist ways.

Thirty of the 500 prisoners were to have been released in the coming weeks in any event, but many of them have not yet completed even two-thirds of their sentences. Justice Minister Tzippy Livny, chairperson of the special ministerial committee on the prisoner releases, acknowledged that this violates the Cabinet guidelines formulated in July 2003, but said, "We decided to release some prisoners who have not yet completed two-thirds whose crimes are relatively less serious or who have little time left to sit, rather than others who have completed two-thirds but whose crimes were very serious or who have many years left in prison."

MK Aryeh Eldad (National Union) said, "Even as the government decides to release terrorists, some of whom will certainly return to their murderous activities against Jews, the police ask the court to extend the detention of six Jews from Gush Katif who protested against the continued mortar shell attacks. Yes, Arik is good for the Arabs [a take-off on Chabad's famous pro-Netanyahu campaign slogan in 1996, "Bibi is good for the Jews"].

Knesset Member Sha'ul Yahalom (National Religious Party) called the decision to reprieve the Bethlehem terrorists "irresponsible." The Almagor terror victim organization said it will try to prevent the move, which it said would cause a renewal of bloodshed.

Hamas spokesmen said last night they agree to refrain from attacking Israelis as long as the IDF does not carry out any anti-terror operations.

Israel has also promised to release another 400 prisoners three months from now, if the ceasefire continues. That would leave some 6,600 terrorist prisoners still incarcerated in Israel.

Prime Minister Sharon said last week that he promised Abu Mazen that terrorists with "blood on their hands" would be included in future releases if the Gaza withdrawal passes "quietly." President Moshe Katzav has said that he would not sign pardons for murderers, except for humanitarian reasons.

The IDF is set to withdraw from Jericho, in the Jordan Valley, today or tomorrow, and transfer control of the city to the PA security services. Another four cities – Ramallah, Kalkilye, Tul Karem and Bethlehem are similarly set to be given over in the coming days or weeks.