"The prisoners are our honour," "Free the prisoners," and "400 freed prisoners is not enough" read banners carried by dozens of mostly female demonstrators who gathered on Saturday in the centre of the flashpoint West Bank city.

 

On a trip to the United States, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pledged on Tuesday to release the prisoners to "help" Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who held talks this week with US President George Bush.

 

Five hundred prisoners were released soon after a February peace summit between Abbas and Sharon in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, but the promised second batch of 400 releases has yet to materialise.

 

Israeli radio reported on Saturday that none of the prisoners likely to be freed were killers and that most had served two-thirds of their sentences.

 

Prisoners detained

 

General Amos Gilad, adviser to Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz, vowed that those accused of orchestrating the 2001 assassination of Israeli tourism minister Rehavam Zeevi would not be released.

 

Around 7000 Palestinians are
held in Israeli prisons

"Clearly, all Palestinian demands in this regard cannot be considered. They (who orchestrated the assassination) must remain in prison," Gilad said.

 

Zeevi was killed in October 2001 at a hotel in east Jerusalem by an agent of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), allegedly in retaliation for the death of PFLP chief Abu Ali Mustapha, who was killed by the Israeli army in Ram Allah two months earlier.

 

Palestinian cabinet minister Ghassan Khatib had described Sharon's announcement this week as "pure propaganda", given that Israel had already pledged to release the inmates.

 

About 7000 Palestinians are thought to be held in Israeli prisons.

 

Police recruitment

 

In a separate development, the Palestinian Authority said on Saturday it is recruiting thousands more police to help secure the Gaza Strip when Israel withdraws from the occupied territory in August.

 

"We've begun to recruit the first contingent of 5000 men in preparation for Israeli withdrawal," an Interior Ministry spokesman told AFP. "About 2000 will be integrated in our police force and the rest will work on national security."

 

The announcement came days after Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz and Palestinian Interior Minister Nassr Yousef failed to reach a security agreement during talks in Tel Aviv to discuss the Gaza pullout.

 

The Israeli government plans to evacuate the more than 8000 Jewish settlers living in Gaza and four northern West Bank settlements from mid-August, withdrawing settlers and soldiers from the territory.