Palestine: Israel frees 250, arrests 300

In the two weeks following the Sharm el Sheikh Summit on June 25, at which Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised to release 250 Fatah-affiliated prisoners from Israeli jails, Israel abducted more than 300 members of Fatah in the West Bank.

The proposed release of hundreds of prisoners was touted by Israel as a "good will gesture" designed to strengthen Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has installed an emergency government headed by Salaam Fayyad after dismissing the "national unity" government headed by democratically elected Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh.

However Palestinian News Agency Ma'an noted on July 10 that "the number arrested in just two weeks has already exceeded the number of detainees proposed to be freed by Olmert".

In the past month, Israel has also continued to abduct and arrest members of Hamas, including Palestinian Legislative Council members. This is part of a year-long campaign by Israel to undermine the Hamas-led PLC. According to Ma'an News, Israel Radio reported on July 8 that Abbas's aides had "appealed to the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert not to release Hamas PLC members, as this step would pose difficulties for Abbas' maneuvers".

On July 5, Fatah PLC members in Gaza and the West Bank boycotted a scheduled PLC session, claiming that the agenda was not finalised. Hamas boycotted a session called by Abbas on July 10, arguing that the abduction of its PLC members made convening the PLC illegal.

According to the London-based Arabic-language newspaper Ash Sharq al Awsat, Abbas is seeking to declare the emergency government the ruling government until new PLC elections are held. The paper also reports that Abbas plans to introduce amendments to the Palestinian Basic Laws to ensure that only Palestinian Liberation Organisation factions can participate in the PLC, preventing Hamas and Islamic Jihad from being elected.

Palestinian human rights organisations and lawyers have also accused Abbas and Fatah of violating the spirit and letter of the Palestinian Basic Law. On July 9, the International Middle East Media Centre (IMEMC) reported that Palestinian lawyers Anis al Qasem and Eugene Cotran, both of whom helped to draft the constitution more than ten years ago, accused Abbas of breaching the laws. According to IMEMC, al Qasem accused Abbas of "destroying the foundation on which the Basic Law is laid".

In addition, the Palestinian National Initiative, the Palestinian NGO network, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) and the Ramallah-based Al Haq legal centre for human rights have also challenged the legality of a range of presidential degrees issued by Abbas.

On July 10, the PCHR accused Abbas of instituting "a military dictatorship" by extending the power of the military judiciary under the state of emergency. According to the PCHR, the decree "is a prescription for the destruction of the judicial authority and the civil life towards the militarisation of the Palestinian society, the derangement of the constitution, the confiscation of public liberties and the enforcement of a military dictatorship". The decree was also criticised by Al Haq, which said it "infringes on the exercise of fundamental human rights and is in violation of provisions of the Palestinian Basic Law."