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Israel suspends Palestinian visits to prisoners

Written by: Staff

JERUSALEM, July 6 (Reuters) Israel has suspended relatives' visits for 8,700 Palestinian prisoners in its jails, since the June 25 capture of a soldier by Gaza militants, a prison services spokeswoman today said.

Spokeswoman Orit Stelzer said the ban affected all the so-called security prisoners, or Palestinians from occupied territory held for suspected involvement in violence.

She said the decision was taken by top security officials right after Corporal Gilad Shalit was captured, but denied it was a means of pressuring for the soldier's release.

''It is not a bargaining chip, but part of a decision taken the moment after the soldier's kidnap, for security and operational reasons,'' said Stelzer, citing military efforts to free him as part of a widening army incursion in the Gaza Strip.

Egypt has mediated efforts to free Shalit, a 19-year-old tank gunner. Militants appeared to show some flexibility yesterday when a Palestinian source said the gunmen would free Shalit if Israel set a timetable to release prisoners.

Israel has signalled it would free some prisoners only at the end of the year without a firm promise, the Palestinian source said.

Israeli officials had no comment.

Israeli leaders have repeatedly refused captors' demands to free prisoners in exchange for Shalit since the standoff began.

An Israeli human rights group, Hamoked for Individual Rights, has appealed the visitation ban to Israel's high court, which has in turn asked the Israeli government to explain it by month's end.

The 40-page petition argues that the measure ''constitutes a difficult and disproportionate step against the families and their relatives in jail.'' ''Our feeling is this is a kind of vengeance, though we can't prove it,'' and possibly a means of pressuring Palestinian militants to free the soldier, Hamoked's director, Dalia Kerstein, told Reuters.

Israel has barred prison visits in the past, notably after the outbreak of a Palestinian uprising in 2000, citing security concerns. That ban lasted through March 2003.

Most jail visits are arranged through the International Red Cross. Generally parents, spouses and siblings may visit a prisoner once or twice a year, Kerstein said. Red Cross officials were not immediately available for comment.

Reuters SHB DB2125

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