Israel is expected to release about 400 Palestinian detainees- a figure that falls greatly below expectations.

 

About 70 Palestinians could be seen flashing victory signs as a bus arrived near the occupied West Bank city of Ram Allah.

 

They were among the first of a batch to be released from the prisons of Ketziot, in the southern Negev desert and Mejido in northern Israel.

 

Among those release, 159 prisoners had not faced trial, according to lists published by Israel's prison services. Another 183 Palestinians were involved in anti-occupation activities.

 

Prisoner Nasr Jaradat, who is being held at Mejido, told our correspondent the majority of detainees released on Wednesday were due to finish their terms in a few days.

 

Israel holds at least 6,000 Palestinian detainees, many without trial or charge. Palestinians are demanding that all prisoners are released as part of steps to push forward the US-backed “road map” aimed at ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

 

Thousands continue to
be held

Palestinian resistance groups have conditioned a three-month ceasefire of anti-occupation attacks on the release of all detainees.

 

Abbas struggles

 

Abbas held talks on Tuesday with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, after breaking off a meeting with his Israeli counterpart Ariel Sharon over an impasse on the prisoner issue.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad described Israel’s move to release the prisoners on Wednesday as a “trick”, pointing out that other Palestinians have been detained in recent days.

And in a move likely to increase tensions, Israeli soldiers launched two raids in the occupied West Bank on Wednesday and detained more Palestinians.

A column of 20 vehicles raided the city of Jericho, where Israeli soldiers imposed a curfew and began storming civilian homes. They arrested eight Palestinians, members of the security and protection force.

Earlier, soldiers launched raids in the village of Sair, near Jenin. Twenty Palestinians were detained, eyewitnesses told our correspondent.

US unease

Foreign peace activists try to
block Israeli construction

Meanwhile, the US State Department confirmed that Israel’s continued construction of a barrier cutting off the occupied West Bank could result in US financial sanctions.

But State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said no decision had yet been made on the proposal to slap sanctions on Israel.

The proposal would withhold US loan guarantees in the exact amount that Israel spends on the barrier cutting off the West Bank from Israel.

Palestinians fear the wall, which effectively cuts off many farmers from their land, will demarcate the borders of a future Palestinian state.

Israeli police released 34 foreign peace activists late on Tuesday detained for trying to block Israeli bulldozers of razing a Palestinian family’s garden through which the wall would pass.

Authorities declared the area “a closed military zone”. The foreign activists were members of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), who came from the United States, Britain, France, Italy, Germany and Sweden.

An Italian woman was expelled while the others received a warning not to interfere in the Israeli army’s work, according to Israeli public radio.