JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel approved on Sunday the release of 250 Palestinian prisoners in a bid to bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his power struggle with Hamas Islamists who control the Gaza Strip.
The prisoners, a fraction of the 11,000 Palestinians held by Israel, will be released in the occupied West Bank, where Abbas’s government holds sway, before next week’s Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, officials said of the decision, which was approved by Israel’s cabinet.
Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had promised to free the prisoners during a meeting earlier this month with Abbas, who launched peace talks with Israel a year ago after Gaza’s violent takeover by Hamas.
“This is a confidence-building measure,” said Olmert’s spokesman Mark Regev.
He said Israel will release prisoners from the ranks of Abbas’s secular Fatah faction and other non-Islamist groups.
Such releases are highly emotive for Palestinians, who regard prisoners as symbols of resistance to Israeli occupation.
“This is a national priority for every Palestinian household,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said, welcoming the cabinet decision.
He said Israel has yet to tell the Palestinians whether it would consider freeing high profile Fatah inmates such as uprising leader Marwan Barghouthi, who is seen as a possible successor to Abbas as president.
Israeli cabinet minister Gideon Ezra said the goal in releasing prisoners was to help Abbas “earn the cooperation of the population” without undermining Israeli security.
“Abu Mazen (Abbas), in the past few months, has made efforts that we’ve never seen before, including trying to stop terrorism,” Ezra said, referring to arrests made by Abbas’s forces. “It’s our commitment to do everything possible ... to make it easier for him.”
Nearly 200 prisoners were freed by Israel in August.
U.S.-sponsored peace talks between Olmert and Abbas, rejected by Hamas, have shown little sign of progress.
Writing by Adam Entous; Editing by Dominic Evans