Israel cabinet votes on freeing 100 Palestinians

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Jerusalem, Sep 23: Israel's cabinet will vote tomorrow whether to release 100 Palestinian prisoners in a move aimed at bolstering Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ahead of a US-backed peace conference, an official said today.

''The intention is to make as many gestures as possible to strengthen the moderates,'' government spokesman David Baker said.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said this week he would ask his cabinet to approve the release of Palestinian prisoners but did not say how many would be freed. Baker said tomorrow 100 prisoners were up for release.

Israel plans to release members of Abbas's secular Fatah faction to boost Western-backed Abbas after the Islamist group Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in June.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited the region this week for talks to push Olmert and Abbas closer to an agreement on Palestinian statehood, ahead of the peace conference expected to be held in November.

Only prisoners with ''no blood on their hands'' and at least one year left on their sentences would be freed, and they would have to sign a document promising not to be involved in violence, officials have said.

Olmert had been expected to free 100 Fatah prisoners ahead of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan but their release was delayed.

The issue of releasing prisoners is highly emotive for Palestinians, who regard some 11,000 brethren held in Israeli jails as fighters for freedom from Israeli occupation in the West Bank.

The Palestinian Minister for Prisoner Affairs said the Israeli gesture was virtually meaningless given the thousands of Palestinians in Israeli jails and continuing raids on the West Bank and Gaza during which more arrests are made.

''Israel is speaking about goodwill but if it wants to show goodwill it needs to release 1,000 prisoners or more, not 100,'' Ashraf Ajrami told Reuters.


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