Olmert frees $100 million to Abbas, Palestinians - KLTV.com - Tyler, Longview, Jacksonville |ETX News

Jerusalem - 12/23/06

Olmert frees $100 million to Abbas, Palestinians

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert meet Saturday in Jerusalem. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert meet Saturday in Jerusalem.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed Saturday to release $100 million in frozen funds to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and ease West Bank travel restrictions.

The goodwill gestures revived hopes for a resumption of peace talks after years of hostility and distrust.

Olmert made the promises in a two-hour meeting with Abbas at the Israeli leader's official residence, the first Israeli-Palestinian summit in 22 months. The meeting comes at a time when both men are facing serious political problems at home and stand to gain domestic support with a peace breakthrough.

Olmert and Abbas failed to reach agreement on a key issue -- a prisoner swap -- but decided to set up a committee to study it further. Part of the equation is not in Abbas' hands. Militants allied with Hamas -- rival to Abbas' Fatah party -- hold an Israeli soldier, and Olmert has said he will not release Palestinian prisoners until the soldier is freed.

The United States and the European union have designated Hamas as a terrorist organization for its failure to abandon its call for the destruction of Israel.

The Israeli leader set a cordial atmosphere at the start of the meeting.

He emerged from his residence to greet Abbas, shaking hands and kissing the Palestinian leader on both cheeks. Abbas was then introduced to Olmert's wife, Aliza, an artist known for her dovish views. The two leaders took seats opposite one another at a long table, set for a meal and covered by white cloth. Israeli and Palestinian flags served as table decorations.

Olmert's office issued a statement saying both men agreed to cooperate as "real partners" and described the meeting's atmosphere as friendly.

"Both leaders agreed that this meeting was the first step toward rebuilding mutual trust and fruitful cooperation," the statement said.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who participated in the talks, said the two leaders agreed to hold more meetings, but did not set a date.

Big win for Abbas

A key achievement for Abbas is the release of $100 million in funds frozen by Israel when Hamas came to power earlier this year. In addition, Israel will transfer 35 million shekels to Palestinian-run hospitals in Jerusalem, Erekat said.

In disbursing the money, Abbas' office will increasingly take on the role of a shadow government. Hamas has been the target of an international aid boycott, and has had difficulty paying the salaries of 165,000 civil servants.

Israel also agreed to remove several roadblocks in the West Bank, Erekat said. Olmert promised to meet a quota of 400 trucks moving through the main cargo crossing between Gaza and Israel.

Abbas is locked in an increasingly bitter and violent showdown with the Islamic militant party Hamas. Last week, he said he would seek early elections, a dramatic challenge to the 10-month-old Hamas government. His announcement intensified factional fighting between Abbas-allied security forces and Hamas militia members, particularly in Gaza, and there are fears that Palestinians will descend into civil war.

Underscoring Abbas' difficulties, the exiled supreme leader of Hamas, Khaled Mashaal, vowed Saturday that elections will not take place. "Is it possible to speak of early elections, and the (previous) elections are still fresh? Is it possible to violate the law and the constitution?" he said on the Arab satellite TV station Al Jazeera. "Any step that violates the law will not be [allowed]."

Olmert, elected in March, has lost much of his popularity during the summer's war with Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas, which many in Israel believe ended inconclusively. The war also discredited Olmert's political program, a promise to withdraw from much of the West Bank and draw Israel's borders unilaterally by 2010, without waiting for a peace deal.

Olmert and Abbas met briefly over breakfast in Jordan in June, under the auspices of Jordan's King Abdullah II, but simply agreed to begin preparations on more substantive talks.

The last summit took place February 8, 2005, when then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met with Abbas in Egypt and announced a cease-fire.

Factional fighting goes on

In Gaza, meanwhile, factional fighting continued. In the southern Gaza town of Rafah, assailants fired on the car of a senior Palestinian security official, wounding him, a bodyguard and a girl.

The target, Hassan Jarbouh, is the deputy chief of the Rafah branch of the Preventive Security Service, which is loyal to Abbas. Preventive Security blamed Hamas for the attack.

Jarbouh, who was on his way to work, was in critical condition. His bodyguard and the girl, a bystander, were less seriously wounded.

The deadly confrontations in Gaza began nearly two weeks ago, with a shooting ambush that killed the three young children of an Abbas-allied intelligence officer.

In all, 17 people have been killed and scores wounded in factional fighting, including heavy gunbattles in densely populated neighborhoods, since the ambush on the children.

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