July 11, 2003
11 Jamadil Awal 1424
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Arab League blasts Israeli minister for statement on drowning prisoners

ISRAELI settlers work to erect the Givat Shalem outpost again after it was dismantled by the Israeli army, July 10. - AFPpix.

CAIRO July 10 - The Arab League on Thursday condemned remarks by extreme right-wing Israeli minister Avigdor Lieberman who said Palestinian prisoners should be drowned in the Dead Sea rather than released.

``These statements full of hatred are clear evidence of the aggressive practices that hamper the Middle East peace process,'' the spokesman for League Secretary General Amr Mussa said.

Lieberman's remarks were ``racist and odious,'' Hisham Yussef said.

``The Israeli government should not remain silent in the face of such statements that have necessarily negative consequences,'' he added.

On Sunday, the Israeli cabinet adopted a motion to free some 350 prisoners, around five percent of the estimated 6,000 Palestinians detained, in a gesture of goodwill towards Palestinian prime minister Mahmud Abbas' government.

The issue sparked a heated debate in the Israeli cabinet. Lieberman, infrastructure minister and leader of the extreme right-wing National Union party, later told public radio: ``It would be better to drown these prisoners, in the Dead Sea if possible, since that's the lowest point in the world.''

Palestinian factions, including Abbas' Fatah movement and the hardline groups Islamic Jihad and Hamas, have demanded that all Palestinian prisoners be set free.

Meanwhile in GAZA, Palestinian Security Minister Mohammad Dahlan urged Israel on Thursday to release thousands of Palestinian prisoners and withdraw from more occupied areas, saying this was ``vital'' to bolster a shaky truce with militants.

Dahlan said he would raise the issue in a meeting on Thursday with Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.

He said Israel's failure to free prisoners had led Prime Minister Mahmud Abbas to cancel a meeting with his Israeli counterpart Ariel Sharon on Wednesday.

``We are calling for the release of all Palestinian prisoners and especially those prisoners who spent long years in prisons, including the ill and the elderly,'' Dahlan, minister of state for security affairs, told reporters after a meeting with Egyptian mediators in Gaza.

Dahlan noted the cases of 460 prisoners in jail for many years, and said: ``There's no justification anymore for those staying in jail.''

The Palestinian minister met with two Egyptian envoys sent by President Hosni Mubarak to bolster a temporary ceasefire declared June 29 by Palestinian militant groups.

The mediators won the agreement of four militant factions to stick to the truce shaken by Israel's refusal to release prisoners and end violence in the past week.

The main Palestinian militant group Hamas warned on Wednesday that the three-month truce declared under intense international pressure to further a US-backed ``road map'' to peace would unravel if Israel did not loosen criteria under which prisoners could go free.

During a meeting on Thursday with the Egyptian envoys, leaders of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the mainstream Fatah movement hammered home a message that ``the prisoner issue could blow up everything'', one official said.

Up to 8,000 Palestinians, including minors, have been arrested since an uprising for independence began in September 2000. The prisoner issue is one of the most emotional, affecting the lives of almost every Palestinian.

Palestinian officials have pressed for a massive release that could boost the popularity of the reformist prime minister, Abbas, among ordinary Palestinians seeking a loosening of Israel's military grip on their lives.

Dahlan said he would also press Mofaz to pull out from the rest of the occupied West Bank cities and towns.

Israeli forces reoccupied most of the West Bank and parts of the Gaza Strip last year after a series of suicide bombings killed dozens of people in Israel.

They pulled back from areas in Gaza and the West Bank city of Bethlehem last week under the peace plan that calls for a Palestinian state by 2005.

But in violence that threatened the truce, Israel killed a Palestinian in a West Bank raid on Wednesday and a Palestinian suicide bomber killed an Israeli woman on Monday.

Earlier in JERUSALEM, US envoy John Wolf urged Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz to dismantle some checkpoints in the West Bank, military radio reported Thursday.

During the meeting late Wednesday which was also attended by US ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer, Wolf presented the defence chief with a list of seven checkpoints to be removed, the radio said.

The envoy, who is tasked with monitoring the implementation of the roadmap peace plan, deemed the seven checkpoints not vital to Israel's security since all of them are deep in the West Bank and are not direct entry points into Israel.

Their removal would restore some level of freedom of movement inside the West Bank, where checkpoints prevent thousands of Palestinians from reaching their jobs and schools or visiting relatives.

The dismantling of checkpoints, which have crippled the Palestinian economy and been the scene of countless deadly incidents, are one of the Palestinians' foremost demands in ongoing efforts to end the 33-month-old cycle of violence.

Israel's chief military prosecutor, Major General Menahem Finkelstein, recently admitted that Israeli soldiers had mistreated Palestinians at roadblocks on several occasions.

He told the Haaretz daily published Thursday that although not all incidents could be investigated, procedures needed to be speeded up. He also recommended soldiers worked fewer hours at checkpoints.

Among the incidents he deplored was an instance of a female soldier forcing a Palestinian woman to drink toxic liquid. - Reuters, AFP


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