JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Cabinet ministers yesterday approved the release of 900 Palestinian prisoners and a military pullout from the West Bank town of Jericho within days in overtures intended to improve the climate ahead of next week’s Mideast summit.
The ministers also approved an earlier decision by the army chief to halt the targeted killings of wanted Palestinian fugitives and agreed to form a joint Israeli-Palestinian committee to decide what to do about them.
The 900 prisoners represent about one-eighth of the total number of prisoners Israel holds. The decision to withdraw only from quiet Jericho falls short of expectations that ministers would approve the evacuation of five West Bank towns, but followed the Israeli government’s decision this week to slow the pullout after a brief outbreak in violence.
Palestinians and Israelis both said yesterday they expect the summit in Egypt to produce a truce ending more than four years of violence.
A joint declaration of a cessation of violence is one of the first requirements in the internationally backed “road map” peace plan, which calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state this year.
“We are not talking about peace now, and not about the ‘road map,’ but rather about phases that come before implementation of the ‘road map,’ ” participants quoted Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as saying at yesterday’s meeting.
In his State of the Union address Wednesday, President Bush expressed hopes for a peace agreement and said he would seek $350 million in aid to the Palestinians.
“The goal of two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace, is within reach, and America will help them achieve that goal,” he said.
Israeli and Palestinian officials welcomed the comments. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said the government was “totally on board” with Bush’s vision.
Maher Masri, the Palestinian trade minister, said: “The trend of the U.S. administration is very positive.”
Earlier in the day, both sides sounded optimistic about truce prospects.
“I hope that a cease-fire will be declared, a halt to all violent acts,” Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres told Israel Army Radio.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, returning to the West Bank after a five-country trip, said he has already won an agreement from militants to halt attacks and expects Israel to respond positively.
“We have announced a cease-fire, and the Israelis should announce one also,” he said.
Sharon and Abbas on Wednesday accepted an Egyptian offer to attend the regional summit, raising hopes for a breakthrough in Mideast peace efforts.
In Thursday’s meeting, the Cabinet ministers approved the release of 500 prisoners immediately after the summit. An additional 400 prisoners are to be freed within three months. In all, an estimated 7,000 Palestinians are held in Israeli prisons.
Speaking to reporters in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Abbas said he wanted Palestinians who have served long terms to be included in the first round of the release.
In Thursday’s meeting, the Israeli ministers said prisoners convicted in attacks on Israelis would not be freed.
The Jericho withdrawal could take place before the summit, but approval was largely window-dressing. Jericho has been quiet during the fighting, and troops have moved into the town only a few times to make arrests.
Under the new arrangements, troops would need Palestinian approval before entering the town, and Palestinian police would be allowed to carry weapons, Israeli security officials said. Roadblocks around Jericho are expected to remain in place, they added.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the ministers that Bethlehem, Qalqiliya and Tulkarem would be handed over next, and that Ramallah, the Palestinians’ center of government, would be last, participants said. They said each pullout would need to be approved separately by the security Cabinet.
The Palestinians want the towns handed over in one blow.
The participants in Thursday’s meeting said the military would also remove some West Bank roadblocks and open the Karni cargo crossing between Gaza and Israel. Karni, Gaza’s lifeline, was closed last month after militants killed six Israelis.
Mofaz emphasized that all the measures are reversible, apparently addressing concerns by hawkish ministers.
A joint Israeli-Palestinian committee is to be set up to settle the question of what to do with hundreds of Palestinian fugitives, the ministers decided.
Israel has killed dozens of wanted Palestinian men in targeted assassinations that have elicited international criticism.
The Palestinians want Israel to grant amnesty to all fugitives. Israeli security officials said Wednesday that Israel would at least agree to stop its hunt for the wanted men, including those responsible for planning or carrying out attacks.
The ministers also gave the go-ahead for construction to begin on a seaport in Gaza, which would stimulate a Palestinian economy hurt by the fighting.
Sharon aide Dov Weisglass and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat were meeting Thursday to finalize the summit agenda.
A group of Palestinian police officers left to begin training in Egypt, which is helping rebuild Palestinian security institutions and prepare them to take over areas of the Gaza Strip set to be vacated by Israel.
And while Palestinians and Israelis were looking for ways to bridge gaps, Israel’s Supreme Court rejected a petition opposing construction of separation barrier in an area that would cut off part of Bethlehem. The petition was brought by the Bethlehem municipality and 21 other petitioners.
In violence in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian militants ambushed an Israeli army vehicle, slightly wounding two soldiers with grenades and gunfire before the army returned fire and killed one of the militants, military officials said.