Palestinian militants are demanding that Israel free thousands of Palestinians or risk ending a cease-fire that started Sunday. A spokesman for the Palestinian group Hamas reportedly said failure to free all the prisoners would be, what he called, a serious violation of the truce.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas made the prisoners a top issue at a meeting this week with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Thursday, Israel freed thirty-three Palestinian prisoners. They included Suleiman Abu Mutlak, a top security officer. The Israeli Cabinet is expected to discuss more releases Sunday. The two leaders held private talks earlier this week in Jerusalem. It was the third meeting between the two men in recent weeks. They said the time has come for peace. They promised to continue efforts to end violence.
The two sides renewed their support for an American-led peace plan for the Middle East known as the road map. President Bush launched the peace plan during a meeting with Mister Abbas and Mister Sharon in Jordan last month. As part of the plan, the West Bank and Gaza would return to Palestinian control. The agreement could lead to a Palestinian state by two-thousand-five.
On Wednesday, Israeli forces turned over control of the West Bank city of Bethlehem to the Palestinian Authority. That was called for under the road map. The peace plan requires Israeli troops to withdraw to positions held before the current Palestinian uprising began in September two-thousand.
Top commanders met Tuesday and worked out the details of the security handover. The military said Israel would be in charge of security of Israelis, including settlers in nearby villages. The Palestinian security forces would be responsible for preventing terrorist attacks in areas under their responsibility.
Last Sunday, Israeli and Palestinian officials carried out a similar change of security control in northern Gaza. The move permitted free movement of Palestinians in the area for the first time in three years. It followed promises by three Palestinian groups to suspend their attacks against Israelis.
In talks Tuesday, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders also discussed creating committees to deal with security and finances. The committees were suspended during the current violence. They discussed permitting free movement of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. And officials say they discussed the issue of Palestinian prisoners.
But differences remained between the two sides about how aggressively Mister Abbas should move against militant organizations. Israel says the Palestinian Authority must disarm terror groups. But Mister Abbas fears a civil war. He said he would rather negotiate an end to the violence.
This VOA Special English program, In the News, was written by Cynthia Kirk.