RAMALLAH, West Bank (AFP) – Palestinian prime minister Mahmud Abbas scrapped a planned meeting with his Israeli counterpart, Ariel Sharon, plunging the peace process into a new crisis hours after a fatal bomb attack.
Sources close to Abbas revealed Tuesday, that he had pulled out of the summit scheduled for Wednesday in protest at the Israeli government’s handling of the controversial prisoners release issue after he himself came fire under from fellow Palestinian leaders.
The meeting would have been Sharon and Abbas’ second round of talks in eight days, which have seen hopes rise of progress for the US-backed “roadmap” for peace which aims to bring an end to the decades-long conflict.
The cancellation follows a meeting of senior Palestinian officials held in Ramallah late Monday, chaired by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and attended by Abbas.
A statement obtained by AFP Tuesday said that the meeting had agreed that all Palestinian prisoners, some 6,000 detainees, must be released unconditionally.
“The leadership rejects Israel’s approach to the prisoners issue and all attempts to categorise them according to political affiliation or to control the destiny of each one of them according to the law of occupation and aggression against our people,” it said.
Sources said that members of the leadership had expressed dismay about the moderate Abbas’ appproach on the issue, without giving details.
Israeli government spokesman Avi Pazner confirmed that the Palestinians had cancelled the meeting but said it was not clear why.
Palestinian ministers have been angered by an Israeli government decision Sunday to pave the way for the release of just 350 Palestinian prisoners, representing little more than five percent of those currently in detention.
The Israeli cabinet laid down strict criteria for the releases which effectively ruled out anyone from Islamic Jihad or another prominent hardline group, Hamas, which recently called a three-month halt to anti-Israeli attacks.
The director general of the Palestinian prisoners’ affairs ministry said that Israel’s stance threatened the whole peace process.
“We have to realise that the prisoner issue was the main focus that brought out the hudna (truce) and by no means can Israel have the right to impose conditions and categorise the prisoners,” Radi al-Jaraaei told AFP.
“There should be a programme that would specify the release of all prisoners within a timeline. Without it, it will be difficult to continue the political dialogue.”
The peace process had already taken a blow earlier Tuesday when a local branch of Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for a deadly bombing in northern Israel, in the most significant breach of the truce announced on June 19.
The leadership of Islamic Jihad however later insisted that it remained committed to the truce called late last month along with Hamas and two other hardline groups.
The militant groups have said that their truce is conditional on, among other things, the release of all Palestinian prisoners, and the local Islamic Jihad spokesman said Israel’s failure to comply had sparked Monday’s explosion.
Brigadier General Avi Biran, the officer leading the investigation into the blast at the village of Kfar Yabetz, said that he believed that the attack was the work of a suicide bomber.
“We had earlier thought this was a gas explosion but we have now come to the conclusion that a suicide bomber got inside the house,” he told AFP at the scene.
A 65-year-old woman named Mazal Afari, who lived in the house in the village near the West Bank, was killed in the blast.
Afari’s niece said that locals believed that the bomber had been planning to attack a synagogue in the village.
“He wanted to blow himself up in a synagogue but he arrived too late and the people had gone and he probably entered this house after somebody … noticed his presence,” Nehama Yezhary told AFP.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said that while the number of deaths caused by the explosion was relatively small, the perpetrators had the ability to wreck the ongoing peace process.
“It was caused by an attack, which is not considered as enormous by our standards, but tomorrow the same group could commit another attack which leaves 20 people dead which would mean the end of the political process,” Shalom told public radio.
Military sources also reported a mortar round had been fired by Palestinians on an army post by a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip, the sixth such incident there since the truce was declared.