JERUSALEM (AFP) — The Israeli cabinet on Sunday approved the release of 250 Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas amid persistent violence around the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
The move followed a pledge by acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert during talks with Abbas on November 17, their first such meeting in two months.
Officials were not immediately able to give a breakdown of the vote in cabinet, which was not carried unanimously.
Trade and Industry Minister Eli Yishai from the ultra-Orthdox Shas party told reporters before the meeting that he would vote against the release.
“Releasing prisoners time and again only weakens the chances of concluding negotiations for the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit,” he said referring to an Israeli conscript held by Gaza militants since June 2006.
“This gesture is very dangerous, strange and dubious.”
The names of those to be freed will now be drawn up by a special committee according to criteria which rule out the release of prisoners “with Jewish blood on their hands”.
Israelis will also be able to lodge objections to any candidates identified for release.
“President Abbas asked for the release of Palestinian prisoners and Olmert himself announced the Israeli government decision to free 250 of them early in December,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP.
He added that the Palestinian Authority “praised the Israeli decision and hopes it will one day apply to all the Palestinian prisoners.”
A senior Israeli official has said that none of the prisoners to be freed belongs to radical Palestinian groups such as Hamas, the Islamist movement which seized power in the Gaza Strip in June 2007.
In a similar move in August, Israel freed 198 Palestinian prisoners. More than 11,000 Palestinians are still held in Israeli prisons.
Hamas weclomed the approval of the prisoner release but criticised Abbas for maintaining normal relations with Israel despite its crippling blockade of Gaza.
“We welcome any decision to free Palestinian prisoners from the occupation’s prisons,” a statement said.
“Hamas will do whatever is necessary to free as many prisoners as possible from all the Palestinian factions.”
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said the prisoner release should be balanced by a tough stand against Hamas and other hardline groups.
“In parallel to the release of prisoners as a gesture to Abu Mazen (Abbas), Israel has to systematically target Hamas and terror organisations,” said Livni, who is a frontrunner to replace the outgoing premier after snap parliamentary elections called for February.
“Otherwise the equation will be unbalanced and will create a wrong image as to Israel’s intention and policy,” she said.
Israel announced on Sunday that it was keeping all border crossings with the Gaza Strip sealed in response to persistent fire by militants based in the impoverished territory.
“Following mortar and rocket fire, the border crossings we had expected to open will remain closed,” defence ministry spokesman Shlomo Dror told AFP.
An Egyptian-brokered truce between Israel and Hamas went into force on June 19, but since November 4 there has been a spate of cross-border attacks.
Israel has allowed food into the Gaza Strip on only three days since the flare-up prompted it to tighten its blockade of the aid-dependent territory.
Israel had been expected to ease its blockade of Gaza after the June truce went into effect but argues that persistent rocket and mortar attacks by militants have made that impossible.
Hamas accuses it of failing to keep to its side of the bargain.
A small Palestinian militant group, the Popular Resistance Comittees, said three of its fighters were wounded before dawn east of the Maghazi refugee camp in the centre of the territory.
It said its militants had been shelled during an Israeli incursion and medical sources confirmed that they were treating three wounded Palestinians.
The Israeli army said it had heard shots in the area but denied that its forces had fired them or mounted any incursion.