Israel Frees Palestinian Prisoners

BEITUNYA, West Bank – Israel released early on Friday, July 20, over 250 Palestinian prisoners in the West Bank in the biggest such releases in two years intended to bolster President Mahmud Abbas in his face off with Hamas.

The first two buses carrying handcuffed men from Israel’s Ketziot prison in the Negev desert arrived at the Beitunya checkpoint at the entrance to the West Bank city of Ramallah just after 0700 GMT, reported Agence France-Presse (AFP).

The prisoners were handed over to the Palestinian authorities at the Muqataa, the Palestinian Authority leadership compound, where Abbas gave them a heroes’ welcome.

Friday’s prisoner release is the biggest by Israel since 2005, when 500 Palestinians were freed in February and another 400 in June.

Israel agreed to release the 256 as part of a series of goodwill gestures designed to bolster Abbas in his struggle for power with Hamas, following the group’s takeover of the Gaza Strip last month, citing "atrocities" committed by Fatah against its members.

Other recent Israeli gestures to Abbas have included a pledge to remove from wanted lists nearly 190 Fatah fighters who had promised not to carry out attacks against Israel, and releasing a part of Palestinian customs duties it has withheld for more than a year after Hamas came to power.

Abbas’s Fatah has been locked in a power struggle with Hamas since losing a general election to the resistance movement in 2006.

The struggle was marred by a bloody internecine conflict that claimed the lives of up to 200 people.

Several bids to form a unity cabinet ended in failure. The latest was a landmark agreement mediated in February by Saudi King Abdullah in the holy city of Makkah.

The last bout of violence has seen Hamas fully controlling the Gaza Strip and led Abbas to sack Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and form a caretaker government in the West Bank led by Salam Fayyad.

The move, however, was blasted as "unconstitutional" by the framers of the Palestinian Basic Law, which serves as a constitution.

The mother and family of Palestinian prisoner in Israel Muhanad Jaradat prepare their family house for Jaradat’s arrival. 
Hundreds of wellwishers and relatives flocked to Beitunya, carrying Palestinian flags, banners of Abbas’s Fatah party and its armed offshoot, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, and pictures of Abbas.

Wearing traditional dress, Halima Jomhur, 60, was waiting for her son Imad who served four years of a six-and-a-half year sentence in Israel.

"He was arrested 10 days before his wedding. His financee is still waiting for him and the first thing we’re going to do is marry them," she said.

"This is a huge joy but it will only be complete when all our prisoners are released," she said, from the village of Beit Annan in the Ramallah area.

Getting onto buses in Israel, the prisoners approved for release, sporting fresh haircuts and carrying plastic bags with their belongings, flashed victory signs to the gathered journalists.

"We are very happy to be freed today," one man told AFP before boarding an armoured bus, its windows replaced by metal sheets.

The freed included six women prisoners and 11 minors, who were transferred to Beitunya from the Hasharon prison in Tel Aviv.

None of the freed prisoners, according to Israeli officials, have "blood on their hands," meaning involvement in attacks that have killed Israelis, and all had to sign a "commitment not to be involved in terror" prior to their release.

The most high-profile prisoner being freed is Abdelrahim Malluh, the 60-year-old deputy leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

He was arrested in 2002 and sentenced two years later to nine years in jail for belonging to a terror group.

The prisoner serving the longest sentence is Muhannad Jaradat, detained in 1989 and sentenced to 20 years. His sentence was due to end in September 2009.

While welcoming the release, many Palestinians interviewed have said that freeing 250 prisoners out of the more than 11,000 held in Israeli jails, the majority of them on security charges, was not enough.
( + News Agencies – July 20, 2007)

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