Israeli Release of Arab Prisoners Sparks Criticism

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The New York Sun

Although Secretary of State Rice applauded Israel’s release yesterday of 198 Palestinian Arab prisoners, some leading Israeli politicians are criticizing the move.

Seeing images of the freed Arab terrorists while an Israeli soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit, remains in the hands of Hamas is “difficult” to watch, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz said. Mr. Mofaz, who is running to replace Prime Minister Olmert as head of the ruling centrist Kadima Party, aimed his criticism mostly at Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, his chief rival for the position. Kadima’s September 17 primary could be followed by a general election this winter.

Some of the freed prisoners had been convicted of committing, planning, or abetting deadly terrorist attacks. The decision to release them was not part of an exchange of prisoners for Corporal Shalit, 22, whose birthday Thursday will be his third in captivity, but instead is being seen in Israel as an attempt to balance out a future release of a much larger number of prisoners to Hamas to secure the Israeli soldier’s freedom. Israeli press outlets also are describing it as a gesture toward Ms. Rice.

“It’s something that Abu Mazen brings up each time we meet,” Ms. Rice told reporters as she traveled to Israel yesterday, referring to President Abbas. Calling the prisoners’ release “a very good step,” she added, “It’s something that matters a lot to the Palestinian people.”

Leaders of the right-leaning Likud Party have long protested Mr. Olmert’s attempts to build support for Mr. Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, a policy endorsed by the Bush administration. Mr. Mofaz’s criticism yesterday was seen by some Israel observers as part of the former army chief and defense minister’s efforts to stake out hawkish positions, in contrast to Ms. Livni’s dovish image.

“Making wrong decisions is worse than making no decisions at all,” Mr. Mofaz said.

Such decisions, he added, include the one-sided release of hundreds of Arab prisoners this year. “Regrettably, Minister Livni promoted such wrongheaded decisions,” he said. “Why are we releasing terrorists, including some with blood on their hands?”

The release of such prisoners only makes sense “in return for Shalit,” Mr. Mofaz added.

Also yesterday, several Palestinian Arab fishing boats sailed beyond the six-mile fishing limit that Israel’s navy has maintained along the Gaza coast since Hamas, a Shiite group linked with Iran and Syria, took control of the territory in 2006. The boats carried Hamas sympathizers from Europe, America, and Israel who arrived at Gaza’s main port over the weekend aboard two ships, renamed Free Gaza and Liberty, the latter after a U.S. Navy vessel that Israel shot in error during the Six-Day War of 1967.

Israel said it allowed the boats to land in Gaza in order to undermine what it considered to be a “propaganda stunt” by the sympathizers, who said they were aiming to break the Israeli blockade on the territory.

The New York Sun

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