The first concrete signs of progress are materialising in the restarted peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. For the first time, the Israelis have not ruled out the release of Palestinian prisoners convicted after terrorist acts involving bloodshed – a key Palestinian demand. This could open the way to many more of the some 7,000 prisoners walking free one day.
A second sign is the handover tomorrow to Palestinian control of the West Bank town of Jericho. Tulkarm is expected to follow this weekend, with Qalqilya set to be next, if all goes well.
The announcement on the prisoners’ issue may be no coincidence as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meets the armed Palestinian factions today in Cairo. It is a meeting Israel’s leader Ariel Sharon has said he is indifferent to, as the object in his opinion is to disband the militants, not talk to them.
However, hinting at larger-scale prisoner releases helps Abbas claim his policies get more results than their guns. The only inmates freed so far were due for release anyway and were held for minor offences. Tackling the issue of harder-core militants will be tougher.
Israel for the moment appears ready to consider freedom only for activists jailed before 1994. With the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan also in Israel, renewing an often difficult relationship for the first time in four years, the only threat to a quickening of the peace process is a fresh outbreak of violence.