JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday promised to release 250 Palestinian prisoners, a goodwill gesture to the moderate Palestinian president at a summit overshadowed by ongoing violence in Gaza that threatens a cease-fire.
Even as Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met in Jerusalem, Gaza militants were firing rockets, underlining that Abbas has little influence in the seaside territory. Islamic Hamas militants overran the Gaza Strip last year, expelling forces loyal to Abbas.
After a relatively effective five-month cease-fire, violence has returned, with Gaza militants firing dozens of rockets and Israel undertaking small armed incursions and air strikes.
At least 17 militants have been killed over the past two weeks, and Israel has clamped a punishing blockade on Gaza, drying up vital supplies.
An Abbas aide said the Palestinian president called on Olmert to ease the restrictions. On Monday, Israel allowed 30 truckloads of food and medicine and a limited amount of diesel fuel into Gaza. U.N. officials said that would allow them to resume distribution to 750,000 needy Palestinians.
Both Israeli and Hamas leaders have said they hope the Egyptian-mediated truce can be preserved, but Israel has threatened to strike hard if the rocket fire persists.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel is ready to attack Gaza, but it would not make a hasty decision. "There is always a need to consider the wider picture before Israel starts using its immense military force," he told a gathering of North American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem.
Responding to critics who charge that the truce has allowed Hamas to rearm, Barak said he does not regret "any single month" of quiet on the border. The truce was preceded by a year of disruption of lives of tens of thousands of Israelis by constant rocket attacks.
Olmert and Abbas have been meeting regularly over the past year to discuss peace efforts.
The planned prisoner release would be the latest in a series of Israeli gestures meant to bolster Abbas in his conflict with Hamas. The release is meant to coincide with a Muslim holiday next month, and all of the prisoners will come from Abbas' Fatah movement, Israeli officials said.
The prisoner issue is sensitive in Palestinian society. Israel holds more than 9,000 prisoners, and nearly every Palestinians has a relative, friend or neighbor who has served time. While Olmert has carried out similar prisoner releases, the Palestinians have always said they should be larger in scope.
Olmert and Abbas relaunched peace talks a year ago with the goal of reaching a final agreement by December 2008.
Both sides have acknowledged they will not meet this target, but hope to lay the foundation for further talks after Olmert leaves office early next year to battle corruption allegations. Elections are scheduled on Feb. 10.
The military said by sundown, 11 rockets and a mortar shell were fired from Gaza at Israel on Monday, causing some damage but no casualties.
Rockets exploded around the time that Britain's foreign secretary, David Miliband, was visiting the rocket-scarred town of Sderot, near the border with Gaza. Miliband was not harmed, and it was not immediately clear whether he was still in the area at the time of the attack.
Palestinian leaders asked Miliband to take steps against Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, and Miliband criticized the construction during a news conference with Palestinian officials.
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad told The Associated Press that the Palestinians have approached the EU with options on removing tariff benefits from products made in the settlements.