Israel agrees to free 90 Palestinians

By Adam Entous, Reuters

JERUSALEM — Israel agreed on Sunday to free another 90 Palestinian prisoners to try to bolster President Mahmoud Abbas ahead of a U.S.-sponsored conference on Palestinian statehood, officials said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Cabinet approved the release in principle and said a ministerial committee would meet later on Sunday to finalise the list of prisoners. The first releases could begin in 48 hours, officials said.

Olmert’s proposal to release Palestinian prisoners for the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan had been delayed for two weeks after a series of rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip cast doubt on whether he could persuade his Cabinet to back the move.

The Israeli government had been expected to release more than 100 Palestinian prisoners. It was not immediately clear why the number was cut back.

“The idea of releasing prisoners is specifically to bolster the moderates,” said Olmert spokeswoman Miri Eisin. “We hope to see additional gestures in the future.”

Israel has agreed to a Palestinian request to allow the deployment of 500 Palestinian police officers within the West Bank city of Nablus to enforce law and order during daylight hours, Israeli defence officials said.

Western diplomats said the decision could lay the groundwork for Israel to give greater security control to the Palestinians in larger parts of the West Bank. The Israeli army would still be able to carry out operations in Nablus, officials said.

Abbas’s office welcomed the latest prisoner release but said more needed to be done on the issue. Abbas aide Saeb Erekat said Israel’s criteria for releasing prisoners was “too restrictive” and should be changed.