Israel began freeing 230 Palestinian prisoners on Monday, nearly a week later than planned, in a move it described as a goodwill gesture to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
"We hope these releases will be seen as an important confidence-building measure designed to strengthen the trust and the confidence in the (peace) negotiations," Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was quoted by Reuters as saying.
Since last year, Regev said, Israel has released some 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. He did not say how many have been arrested by Israel in that same time frame. Israel freed nearly 200 prisoners in August.
The prisoners freed on Monday are a fraction of the 11,000 Palestinians held by Israel. Their release was originally due to take place last week, in the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.
Israeli officials said Palestinians sought a delay for logistical reasons. Abbas was attending the hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
Palestinian officials however denied requesting any postponement, saying the delay was due to Israeli legal procedures.
The release was further delayed for several hours on Monday as Israel’s high court heard an appeal from right-wing Israelis who customarily object to freeing Palestinian prisoners.
But the prisoners began being liberated at about noon local time (1000 GMT), most of them at the Ofer Prison near the West Bank town of Ramallah, said Yaron Zamir of Israel’s prison services. A smaller group was bussed from a prison in the southern Israeli town of Ashkelon to the Gaza Strip.
Symbols of Resistance
Most of the prisoners would be sent to the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where Abbas’s government is based.
Eighteen were expected to go to Gaza, which Hamas seized in June 2007 after routing Fatah forces loyal to Abbas.
Such releases are highly emotive for Palestinians, who regard prisoners as symbols of resistance to Israeli occupation.
Aides to outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the prisoners came from the ranks of Fatah and other non-Islamist groups.
Muhammad Hasan Asfour, previous Palestinian NGOs minister said to AlArabiya.net that the release of the prisoners proves the continued efforts of the Palestinian Authorities to resolve the plight of Palestinians, adding that more remains to be accomplished.
"The release is a step in the right direction and shows the seriousness of the Palestinian Authorities’ negotiations. More needs to be done to free the Occupied Territories and stop the threat of settler communities" he said.
(Alarabiya.net and Reuters)