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Sources: Israel to free militants

Prisoner release to include members of Islamic Jihad, Hamas

Ariel Sharon
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon opens Sunday's Cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem.

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JERUSALEM (CNN) -- The Israeli Cabinet voted Sunday to allow the release of Palestinian prisoners affiliated with Islamic militant groups, Israeli sources told CNN.

The vote was 14-9 to support Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and enable the release of Hamas and Islamic Jihad members with other Palestinians held in Israeli prisons who meet certain conditions established by the Cabinet, the sources said.

Not all Palestinians were placated, however, and a number demonstrated in the West Bank city of Hebron to demand the release of all 7,000 Palestinians in Israeli custody.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who met with President Bush on Friday at the White House, has included the release of political prisoners among his peace demands.

Israel initially refused to release any prisoners affiliated with Islamic militant groups.

The exact numbers were not clear. An Israeli government official said 380-480 Palestinian prisoners would be released, but Israeli radio reported the total as 540.

A senior Israeli official said Sharon is expected to tell President Bush that Israel has been "doing very thorough research and checking on a case-by-case basis" those Palestinians in Israeli prisons and would decide whom to release based on that review.

The released prisoners will include more than 200 who are members of Islamic Jihad or Hamas, the official said.

Islamic Jihad is a militant group dedicated to the creation of an Islamic Palestinian state and the destruction of Israel. Hamas, a Palestinian Islamic fundamentalist organization, has acknowledged terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians and soldiers.

In addition, Justice Minister Yosef Lapid told Channel One in Jerusalem that Israel would consider releasing imprisoned Palestinian political leaders if serious steps toward a true peace agreement were made.

Israel considers the move a "small risk" on the path to peace, the official said.

"Israel is willing to take a risk in order to make progress in the peace process," said Daniel Ayalon, Israel's ambassador to the United States.

Israeli officials said they have released 250 Palestinian prisoners since Abbas was sworn in as Palestinian prime minister earlier this year.

Sunday's Cabinet decision came hours before Sharon left for Washington, where he is to meet Tuesday with President Bush, who has been pushing for Israel to comply with the demands set out in the "road map" to peace.

The road map is backed by the so-called Mideast Quartet -- the United States, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union. It is aimed at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and establishing a peaceful, democratic Palestinian state by 2005.

In a separate move that complies with the demands of the road map, the Israelis lifted two checkpoints north of Ramallah and several roadblocks near Nablus, Bethlehem and Hebron, all in the West Bank.

The Civil Administration raised by the number of entrance permits given to Palestinian workers and merchants from Bethlehem and Tulkarem.

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