Warning of an impending political crisis, the Palestinian minister for prisoners' affairs said on Wednesday that Israel's refusal to free Hamas and Islamic Jihad prisoners "will lead the political process to a dead-end."
"It is difficult to solve the issue of the prisoners with Israel,” Hisham Abdelrazzaq was quoted by AFP as saying. “How can we reach a final (peace) solution if we do not solve this problem?" The minister called for “immediate American and international intervention."
The two Palestinian groups in question echoed the minister’s criticism, with one Hamas official warning of serious repercussions if the issue of freeing detainees was not resolved.
The warnings came after the Israeli ministerial committee on prisoner release met Wednesday morning in Jerusalem. Officials met to discuss the timing of releases as part of Israel's commitments under the US-backed peace plan known as the ‘road map’.
The committee decided to free a group of 350 Palestinian prisoners but rejected the release of any members of the two hard line Islamist groups.
Israel: No freedom for fighters
The Haaretz newspaper reported that some ministers at the meeting said they did not understand how a previous decision by the government - in which they participate - had allowed for the release of Hamas and Islamic Jihad prisoners.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reportedly backed the committee’s decision and said his full cabinet would discuss the matter again.
The prime minister is under extreme pressure from rightwing members of his coalition government not to release prisoners linked to attacks on Israeli targets.
Islamic Jihad's al-Hindi accuses
Israel of 'blackmail'
Sharon recently declared that Palestinians “with blood on their hands” would not be eligible for release.
But during the meeting, Ministers Gideon Ezra (of the Likud party) and Yosef Lapid (Shinui) dissented, according to the paper.
The two called for expanding the list of detainees to be released, claiming this would boost the standing of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas among his people.
Officials of Hamas and Islamic Jihad reacted angrily to the committee’s decision.
"The Zionist enemy is responsible for this decision and its dangerous consequences," Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas was quoted by AFP as saying.
"It confirms that the problem does not come from the Palestinian side which offered a real opportunity to reach stability and justice," he said.
Senior Islamic Jihad official, Mohammed al-Hindi, criticized Israel for using the prisoner issue “to blackmail the Palestinians” and also called on the PA to cease meetings with Israel.
The two groups were coaxed into a three-month ceasefire deal on June 29 by the Palestinian premier. But they have warned they will end the truce if there is insufficient progress in peace talks.
Under severe domestic pressure to push the US-backed ‘road map’ forward, Abbas will ask the US to press Israel when he meets President George W Bush in Washington on Friday.