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Olmert Makes Good Will Overture to Palestinians

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Palestinian women and children attend a protest at the International Red Cross headquarters in Gaza

Palestinian women and children attend a protest at the International Red Cross headquarters in Gaza City. Some families are asking for their sons to be exchanged with Israeli hostage Gilad Shalit. Abid Katib/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Abid Katib/Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Monday he would order the release of 250 members of the Fatah movement from Israeli prisons as a "gesture of good will towards the Palestinians."

The announcement came as Arab and Israeli leaders held a high profile summit aimed at strengthening Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and containing the militant Hamas after it seized Gaza.

Ahead of the gathering, a series of messages released by militants underlined Gaza's turmoil, which has raised Arab and Israeli fears that the tiny coastal territory could become a breeding ground for extremists.

Egypt, the host of the summit in Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik, is particularly worried about a spillover of violence from Hamas-held Gaza and organized the gathering in a bid to isolate the Palestinian militant group.

Olmert held separate talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Abbas. Jordanian King Abdullah II arrived later to join them in a four-way meeting later in the evening.

The Arabs and Palestinians are pressing Israel to take immediate advantage of the Hamas militants' expulsion from the coalition government and make quick peace progress despite the Palestinians' split between a Gaza ruled by the Iranian-backed Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank run by Abbas' Western-backed Fatah in the West Bank.

But Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said major peace negotiations cannot take place until the Palestinians end their divisions. He said Abbas needs to win "the full support of the Palestinians who voted for Hamas."

"Obviously, if there's more than one representative of the Palestinians then we cannot negotiate a deal," Palmor said. "So, we will need to have, and the Palestinians will need to have, one, sole authorized, recognized interlocutor."

Earlier, Olmert had played down expectations of major Israeli concessions during the gathering.

Abbas is hoping the summit will pave the way for Israel to ease security restrictions in the West Bank, where his emergency government holds sway, and for a resumption of peace negotiations.

On Sunday, Israel agreed to release to Abbas desperately needed funds it has withheld from the Palestinian government.

From The Associated Press reports



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