Israel agrees to free 170 Palestinian prisoners

A Palestinian woman recovers household goods from the rubble on Sunday after Israeli troops withdrew from a section of the Khan Younis refugee camp in the Southern Gaza Strip.
A Palestinian woman recovers household goods from the rubble on Sunday after Israeli troops withdrew from a section of the Khan Younis refugee camp in the Southern Gaza Strip.Khalil Hamra / AP
/ Source: news services

Israel has agreed to free 170 Palestinian prisoners as a gesture to Egypt for freeing a convicted Israeli spy and to show goodwill ahead of a Palestinian election, officials said Sunday.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Cabinet gave its approval in principle last week. His office said the prisoners would be released in days.

Israel had said that it would not free prisoners with “blood on their hands” — those who had been jailed for planning or carrying out attacks that killed Israelis.

Israel Radio said that 120 of the prisoners to be freed were from the dominant Fatah movement. The others were caught inside Israel illegally.

It said the Shin Bet domestic security service had ruled out the release of a further 30 Islamist prisoners whose names had originally been proposed.

Palestinians clean up after raid
Meanwhile, Palestinian searched through the rubble of their demolished homes, hours after Israeli troops ended a two-day operation in southern Gaza that killed 11 Palestinians and wounded dozens.

The raid on the Khan Younis refugee camp was the largest operation since Yasser Arafat’s death last month. It came in response to Palestinian mortar and rocket attacks that killed one person and wounded 17.

After Arafat’s death on Nov. 11, Israel said it would refrain from major offensives ahead of the Jan. 9 Palestinian presidential election but would respond if attacked. Israeli troops moved out of the camp late Saturday.

Coalition government nearly formed
Meanwhile, Sharon’s Likud Party and the opposition Labor Party appeared ready to finalize a pact to form a coalition government, an alliance that would bolster Sharon’s plans to withdraw from the Gaza Strip next year.

Israeli media reported the deal would be signed Sunday and the new Cabinet ministers could be sworn in as early as Thursday.

Dozens of European Union election observers also began their work Sunday, spreading out in the West Bank to prepare for the Palestinian vote.

In Khan Younis, residents awoke to piles of broken furniture, clothing and personal household goods strewn throughout the destruction. Men used shovels to salvage belongings, while children stood watching, schoolbags on their backs.

Field workers of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, responsible for the well-being of Palestinian refugees, estimated that some 39 Palestinian homes were demolished. UNRWA said it would put out an official report later Sunday.

Amena Tratori, a 44-year-old mother of six, looked at the mound that used to be their home.

“What to do, and where to go? They left us nothing,” she said. “If they (the Israelis) think that by killing people and destroying their homes they can stop resistance they are mistaken. The young children will remember the destruction and will never forget.”

A total of 11 Palestinians, including at least seven militants, were killed and 43 others were wounded. A Palestinian ambulance driver and five children under the age of 16 were among the wounded. One Israeli soldier also was wounded.

Hundreds of residents who had evacuated their homes began returning to the camp late Saturday even though the area was engulfed in darkness because the electric grid was damaged in the operation.

The Israeli raid was in response to at least 50 Palestinian mortar and rocket attacks over the past week. The attacks killed a Thai worker in a Jewish settlement and injured 17 other people, including 11 soldiers, the army said.

The army has said it targeted houses used by militants to launch mortars or rockets.

Rockets fired into southern Israel
Early Sunday, Palestinian militants in northern Gaza fired three homemade rockets into southern Israel, lightly wounding two people in the town of Sderot, the Israeli army said. Hours later, an Israeli aircraft fired a missile at a target in northern Gaza. Palestinian security officials said there were no injuries.

The army also reported new mortar fire on settlements in southern Gaza.

Sharon is planning a withdrawal next year from Gaza, where some 8,200 Jewish settlers live amid 1.3 million Palestinians, along with a pullout from four West Bank settlements.

He has sought to bring the dovish Labor Party and at least one religious party into his government to give him a parliamentary majority.