Can Israel's Gestures Form a Better Platform for Peace Talks With the Palestinians?

Israel has agreed to begin releasing 250 Palestinian prisoners by the weekend.


JERUSALEM, July 16, 2007 — -- Mahdi Maraka is happy.

One of the Palestinian fugitives wanted by Israel, Maraka has been given amnesty by Israel following talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Monday.

Maraka told ABC News that his group "will abide by all the decisions taken by the Palestinian president because we want to give him the full chance to negotiate."

The Israeli prime minister met with Abbas in Jerusalem Monday to discuss relations between Israel and the Palestinian authority after Hamas brutally seized control of the Gaza Strip.

The two leaders last met in the Egyptian resort of Sharm El Sheikh on June 25. In the Middle East, many saw that meeting as nothing more than a photo opportunity, a PR campaign aimed at showing progress in mutual talks -- progress that in fact was not happening.

Monday's meeting between the two leaders, however, is significantly different because of the gestures made by Israel to the Palestinians.

In unusual moves aimed at bolstering Abbas, the moderate Palestinian leader who is backed by both Israel and the United States, Israel will start releasing 250 Palestinian prisoners held at Israeli jails by the end of the weekend.

The issue of the Palestinian prisoners has always been an enormously pressuring problem for the Palestinian president and a prime concern for thousands of Palestinian families.

In addition to this gesture, Israel will give amnesty to 178 wanted armed men affiliated with the Palestinian president's Fatah party. According to the amnesty deal, Israel will stop chasing these armed militants if they lay down their arms and cease their attacks against Israel.

Miri Eisin, a spokesperson for the Israeli government, told reporters Monday that Olmert talked to Abbas about "the changing of the status of the fugitives." She added, "This is an important aspect of the developing security cooperation."

Israel will also allow several Palestinian exiled leaders to attend meetings in Ramallah where they will discuss the situation in the Palestinian territories after Hamas' takeover of Gaza.

In recent years, there have been numerous calls urging Israel and even the United States to do more to boost Abbas' profile and empower his rule of the West Bank and Gaza. But it was only after Hamas took Gaza by brutal force, banishing and executing Fatah security men who were loyal to Abbas, that Israel took more serious measures.

Hamas is angry. A Hamas spokesperson told The Associated Press Monday that these Israeli gestures are only "cosmetic changes that will not change anything."

But in response to Israel's gesture came a pacifying move from the Palestinians. All the wanted Palestinian militants who were given amnesty by Israel agreed to lay down their weapons in the hope that Abbas would start significant negotiations with Israel.

Maraka confirmed to ABC News that he has submitted his arms to the Palestinian authority and has signed an official statement which said that he should stop the armed attacks against Israel. This is in exchange for an immunity from arrest or assassination.

Maraka, who is married with three children, said: "The Palestinian preventive security [the intelligence apparatus of the Palestinian authority] told me that my name is on the Israeli list of names and that I will be given amnesty."

He added, "Seven militants from the armed Al Aqsa Brigade [an affiliated group with Abbas' Fatah party] have also submitted their arms to the Palestinian authority."

"I submitted everything…I am tired and want to live like everyone else without hiding," said Maraka.

Other Palestinian militant factions, however, refused to lay down their arms. In an official statement, the brigades of Abu Ali Mustapha, an offshoot group of the Palestinian Popular Front party, said that laying down the arms is a "miserable attempt to divide the unity of the resistance."

Olmert and Abbas are expected to meet again in two weeks in the West Bank city of Jericho to continue talking about the future relations between Israel and the Palestinian authority. And right now it remains to be seen if the gestures offered by Israel to the Palestinian authority will help both sides move to a more progressive state of negotiations that will lead eventually to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

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