JERUSALEM – Israel on Sunday backed off its long-standing refusal to release Palestinian prisoners accused of violence against Israelis, defusing a crisis that threatened to derail an upcoming Mideast summit.
The easing in the Israeli position came as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) arrived in the region for separate talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, in part to review the agenda for the summit.
In a related development, the mainstream Fatah movement declared Sunday that it would be prepared for a cease-fire with Israel.
Fatah, headed by new Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search), declared that it was prepared "to be committed to comprehensive mutual cease fire in the occupied Palestinian land of 1967," referring to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Also, the statement said it served to confirm an earlier vow "not to target civilians in Israel by any means."
Palestinians hope for such a mutual declaration when Abbas meets Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik on Tuesday.
The summit would be the first at that level in four years — a clear sign that tension and violence are dropping since Abbas succeeded the late Yasser Arafat last month.
Abbas has made the fate of Palestinian prisoners a top priority, and a large-scale release would boost his efforts to end the Palestinian uprising.
On her arrival for a two-day visit, Rice said she would push for progress from both sides. "This is a hopeful time, but it is a time also of great responsibility for all of us to make certain that we act on the words that we speak," she said before meeting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Last week, Israeli leaders approved the release of 900 prisoners, none involved in violence, in a gesture ahead of the summit. Palestinian officials complained that the planned gesture did not go far enough, and the dispute overshadowed summit preparations.
Late Saturday, top aides of Sharon and Abbas agreed to form a committee to study additional releases, including of prisoners involved in attacks. Negotiators also made final an arrangement of conditional amnesty for Palestinian fugitives, they said.
The fate of Palestinian prisoners is one of the most emotionally charged issues for the Palestinians. Israel holds more than 7,000 Palestinians prisoners, many of them arrested during the last four years of violence. In decades of conflict, many thousands of Palestinians have spent time in Israeli custody.
Issa Karaka, head of the Palestinian Prisoners' Club, a group that lobbies for prisoners' rights, said at least 1,000 of these prisoners are serving life sentences for acts of violence. Thousands more face similar charges but have not yet been tried, he said.
He said it would be essential for Israel to change its criteria for releasing the prisoners. "In every war, people are arrested who have blood on their hands. And at the end, they are released," Karaka said.
Hisham Abdel Razek, Palestinian Cabinet minister in charge of prisoner issues, said that if Israel does not ease its criteria, it could hurt Abbas. "It will not allow him to succeed in the Palestinian street," he told Israel Army Radio.
Palestinian officials are pushing for the immediate release of some 400 prisoners convicted before 1993, when Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed an interim peace accord.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom warned against releasing prisoners convicted of killing Israelis. "This could give ideas to other Palestinians to think they can go and murder Jews, and one day Abu Mazen will come and get them a deal for their freedom," he told Channel Two TV, referring to Abbas by his nickname.
A senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that in return for forming the joint committee, the Palestinians agreed not to make the prisoners an issue at the summit.
Also, officials said Israel's Cabinet refused to allow reopening of Gaza's airport, closed shortly after hostilities erupted in 2000, but would permit work on construction of a seaport near Gaza City.
In a small gesture, Israeli security officials said Qassam Barghouti, son of imprisoned uprising leader Marwan Barghouti, would be in the first group of Palestinian prisoners to be freed.
The younger Barghouti, a student in Egypt, was arrested upon entering the West Bank in December 2003. His mother Fadwa, who also is his lawyer, said he has six weeks left on a 15-month sentence for "disobeying Israeli orders."
Israel is refusing to free the elder Barghouti, who is serving five life terms after convictions on involvement in fatal attacks against Israelis.
"As a mother, I'm happy to see my son out of jail," Mrs. Barghouti said. "But it is a partial happiness, because his father is in jail, other Palestinian prisoners are still in jail, and there is no indication that Israel will release them."