Israel to Release 400 Palestinian Prisoners

Israel's Cabinet decided Sunday to free 400 Palestinian prisoners, but the overdue gesture — part of a February truce — disappointed Palestinians who said Israel broke a promise to coordinate the release with them.

Hours after the decision, the Israeli military said it carried out an airstrike on Palestinian rocket launchers as they prepared to fire in northern Gaza (search), in a rare attack since a February truce. Hospital officials said a man and two women were wounded by shrapnel in the attack early Monday.

The violent Islamic Jihad (search) group said one of its cells, which minutes earlier fired three rockets at an Israeli village just outside Gaza, was the target of the airstrike.

An Israeli missile strike during a flare-up of mortar and rocket fire 10 days ago in southern Gaza seemed to spur the militants on to more violence, the longest sustained flare-up since the truce.

In violence on Sunday, three Palestinians were killed in two Gaza blasts — one while firing at Israelis and two by explosives they were handling.

The truce emerged from a Feb. 8 summit in Egypt with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search). The package included an end to violence, handover of five West Bank towns to Palestinian control and release of 900 prisoners.

Israel freed 500 prisoners and handed over two towns but stopped the process at that point, charging that the Palestinians had failed to carry out their pledge to disarm the militants in the towns under their control. Also, Israel complained, Palestinian militants still attempt many attacks that are foiled by Israeli security.

Israel's government demanded the Palestinians fulfill their obligations to Israel's satisfaction before any further steps. Palestinians countered that Israel was violating the truce and endangering the cease-fire.

The turnaround came Sunday, when Sharon told his Cabinet that Israel must release the remaining 400 prisoners "as part of Israel's effort to help Abu Mazen [Abbas] and the moderate Palestinian forces."

Three ministers voted against the release, insisting that all violence must stop first, but 18 were in favor.

A ministerial panel will now compile a list of those eligible to be freed. No one directly involved in deadly attacks on Israelis would be released, but Israel might be more flexible than in the past and free prisoners who have not completed two-thirds of their terms, a government official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his position.

Justice Ministry spokesman Jacob Galanti said the release could be Thursday.

Palestinians criticized the decision, saying Israel had broken its agreement to consult them on which prisoners to release.

The Palestinians demanded the release of 360 prisoners who have been in jail for more than a decade, but Israel refused to release prisoners who had been involved in violence, said Issa Karake, a member of a Palestinian committee that was to have negotiated the release.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said he asked Israel to resume handing over West Bank towns to Palestinian control.

More than 7,000 Palestinian prisoners are in Israeli custody, many rounded up by troops during more than four years of violence.

Though he approved freeing 400 prisoners as a gesture, Sharon told his Cabinet that Israel has "very grave complaints" about Abbas' performance in reining in militants, according to a statement from Sharon's office.

Abbas has been reluctant to confront armed Palestinian factions for fear of touching off a civil war. His ruling Fatah Party also faces a serious electoral challenge from Hamas militants, who appear headed to make a strong showing in Palestinian legislative elections, scheduled for July 17.

In an ABC TV interview broadcast on Sunday, Abbas said he has succeeded in countering the "culture of violence" among his people, and there would be no more bombings. But he warned that if progress toward a peace agreement is not achieved in meetings with Sharon next month, "despair and loss of hope will come back and [bring] a return to the old ideas" of armed resistance.

Israelis charge that violent Palestinian groups are using the cease-fire to replenish their stocks of weapons and explosives, and three militants were killed in two such incidents on Sunday.

One died when his weapon exploded as he was trying to fire a grenade at Israelis in southern Gaza, the military and Palestinians said.

Two other militants were killed and three seriously wounded when explosives they were carrying blew up, Palestinians said. Residents said they belonged to the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a violent group linked to Abbas' Fatah Party.

Also Sunday, in the West Bank city of Hebron, a Palestinian man tried to stab Israeli soldiers at a junction, but troops opened fire and killed him, the military said. The man ignored the soldiers' order to stop and the warning shots they fired in the air, the military said. Military sources said the attacker was carrying three suicide letters explaining his action to relatives.