Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has closed 92 charities linked to Hamas, officials said Monday, part of an intensifying West Bank crackdown on the Islamic militants who seized the Gaza Strip and are challenging renewed peace talks with Israel.
Israel released 429 Palestinian prisoners to try to bolster Abbas and build on momentum from last week's Mideast peace conference in Annapolis, Md., where Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said they would aim to reach a peace deal in 2008.
Joy mixed with tears as buses carrying the prisoners, most from Abbas' Fatah movement, rolled into his walled headquarters in Ramallah. Many had been arrested at the height of the Palestinian uprising several years ago and were struggling with the transition to a new era of negotiations.
Ex-gunman Tareq Abu Lail, 24, said he hoped for peace but doubted he would see success. Sentenced to eight years, he got out after three and said he was proud of his role in the uprising.
His father, Yousef, 49, disagreed.
"The uprising is dead," he said. "We hope Annapolis will be the start of peace."
Largest release in 3 years
The release, the largest in three years, was meant to boost Abbas, who is trying to win over a public skeptical about his peace effort and beat back challenges by Hamas.
Since Hamas' violent takeover of Gaza in June, Abbas has moved systematically against the Islamic militants in the West Bank. His security forces have arrested hundreds of Hamas supporters, and he issued tougher anti-money-laundering regulations to cut off Hamas funding from abroad.
On Monday, Abbas' information minister, Riad Malki, said the government in the West Bank dissolved 92 Hamas-linked charity committees.
The committees were formed by prominent local and religious leaders under the supervision of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The committees collect money and distribute it to the poor, usually during religious holidays. They were ordered closed two weeks ago, but the announcement was only made Monday.
Malki said the committees were infiltrated by Hamas activists in previous years of Fatah rule. "They transformed the charity committees into financial empires to serve their political ends and activities," he said.
One of the committees closed by Abbas, in the West Bank city of Nablus, said it provided aid to 3,200 families and 3,000 orphans, at a cost of $212,000 to $282,000 a month.
The head of the committee, Abdel Rahim Hanbali, said most of the money came from local donations.
New charities coming
On Tuesday, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad was scheduled to announce the formation of 11 new charity committees to take the place of those dissolved.
In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the closure of the charities will lead to hunger in the West Bank. "It's an attempt to weaken Hamas, but the Palestinian citizen will pay the price, because they benefit from these committees."
Hamas' network of charities, schools and clinics was a key factor in the rising popularity of the movement and contributed to its victory over Fatah in parliament elections in 2006. At the same time, Fatah was weakened by deadlock in peace talks with Israel and widespread official corruption and mismanagement.
As part of the renewed U.S.-led peace efforts, Abbas has been pushing for Israeli confidence-building measures, such as prisoner releases, that would boost support for his policies.
Israel is holding about 9,000 prisoners, and their release is a central Palestinian demand. About 770 have been freed since July, far short of Palestinian expectations.
In other developments Monday:
- Defending himself against hard-line critics, Olmert told the Israeli parliament "there is no alternative" to creating a Palestinian state next to Israel. He also said Israel would take part in rehabilitating Palestinian refugees, while rejecting the demand that they be resettled in Israel.
- Israel held up the transfer of 25 Russian armored vehicles to Palestinian police in the West Bank because the Palestinians want to have them mounted with machine guns, security officials said. Olmert approved the shipment two weeks ago over the objections of his own security forces. Israeli officials said the armored vehicles were not intended to include machine guns.
- About 550 Palestinian pilgrims crossed from Gaza into Egypt, heading to Saudi Arabia for the Muslim pilgrimage. It marked the first time since the Hamas takeover that Gazans were able to leave the territory for Egypt. About 200 were turned back for lack of Saudi visas, officials said.
- In Israel, the Palestinian assassin of an ultranationalist Israeli Cabinet minister was sentenced to life in prison Monday and given 100 more years for bombing and shooting attacks on other Israelis. Hamdi Quran gunned down Rehavam Zeevi, Israel's tourism minister, in a Jerusalem hotel in October 2001. Quran had been in Palestinian custody until last year, when he was seized by Israeli forces.