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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Israel to Release 500 Palestinian Prisoners

JERUSALEM — Israel's Cabinet on Sunday approved the release of 500 Palestinian prisoners in what Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called a goodwill gesture to bolster new Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and build mutual trust.

In a further step to support peace moves after Sharon and Abbas agreed on a cease-fire at a groundbreaking summit five days ago, Israel let more than 200 Palestinian laborers enter from the Gaza Strip for the first time in months.

Abbas won a pledge from Islamic militants Saturday to keep a de facto truce while they weigh the cease-fire. In a major policy shift, the Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups said they would not retaliate immediately for any Israeli military action. Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar said the group would make a final decision on the cease-fire after reflecting on talks with Abbas.

Israeli officials said the 500 prisoners could go free as early as Tuesday. Another 400 are due to be released in the next few weeks under a decision announced by Sharon last week.

"This is not an easy step, but this gesture possibly could help the Palestinian Authority solidify its rule and boost trust between the two sides," a government statement quoted Sharon telling ministers.

Freedom for 8,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails is a highly emotive issue for Palestinians, who regard them as heroes of an uprising that began more than four years ago.

An Israeli government official said of the 500 slated for release, around half belonged to Abbas' mainstream Fatah faction and the others were members of Islamic militant groups.

Hassan Abu Libdeh, a senior Palestinian official, welcomed approval of the prisoner release.

"However, we reiterate that specific criterion should be adopted that would guarantee the release of all prisoners," Abu Libdeh said. "Priority should be given to women prisoners, teenagers and elderly prisoners."

Israel, which has refused to free prisoners convicted of attacks that caused deaths or serious injuries, agreed last week to set up a joint committee with the Palestinians on expanding the list.

In another confidence-building move, Israel plans to pull troops away from the West Bank city of Jericho this week, officials said.