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20 Jul 2007 11:15
Israel freed more than 250 Palestinian prisoners met by joyful relatives on Friday, in the biggest such release in two years intended to bolster president Mahmoud Abbas against Hamas.
Seven buses carrying handcuffed men from Israel’s Ketziot Prison and an eighth carrying seven women drove slowly through the Beitunya checkpoint at the entrance to the West Bank political capital of Ramallah after 08h00 GMT.
“I only have three words to say: freedom, freedom, freedom. There is nothing more beautiful than freedom,” said Abdelrahim Malluh, deputy leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the highest profile prisoner to be freed.
Others among the 256 prisoners, sporting fresh haircuts and grinning from ear to ear, craned their necks to lean out of the bus windows waving flags and keffiyehs, flashing victory signs to waiting journalists and loved ones.
At Beitunya they were formally handed over to the Palestinian authorities and were being driven to the Muqataa, the Palestinian Authority leadership compound in Ramallah, where Abbas was waiting to give them a heroes’ welcome.
Women shrieked in joy, while hundreds of well-wishers and relatives flew the Palestinian flag, banners of Abbas’s Fatah party and its armed offshoot, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, and pictures of Abbas.
Pictures of Abbas’s late predecessor, historic Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, with the black, white, green and red colours of the national standard were adorned on the buses waiting to take the released prisoners downtown.
Friday’s release of 256 prisoners is the biggest by Israel since 2005, when 500 Palestinians were freed in February and another 400 in June.
Israel agreed to the releases as part of a series of goodwill gestures designed to bolster Abbas in his struggle for power with the Islamist Hamas, following the group’s bloody takeover of the Gaza Strip last month.
The prisoners largely belong to Abbas’s Fatah party that has been locked in a power struggle, and at times deadly combat, with Hamas since losing a general election to the Islamist movement in 2006.
Abdelsalam Imran, Malluh’s father-in-law, was among the jostling crowd in Beitunya feting his freedom, delighted to have been on holiday in Ramallah from his home in the United States when the releases were announced.
“I was here by chance and just as well because, at 78, I don’t know if I would have still been alive in two years to receive him,” he said—referring to Malluh’s previously expected release date in 2009.
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 fiancée 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.
While welcoming the release, the Palestinians 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.
“We have begun to free 256 prisoners,” Ian Domnitz, a spokesperson for the Israeli prisons authority, confirmed to Agence France-Presse at Ketziot as the buses pulled out under heavy guard.
None of them 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 prisoner who served the longest sentence is Muhannad Jaradat, detained in 1989 and sentenced to 20 years.
Other recent Israeli gestures to Abbas have included a pledge to remove from wanted lists nearly 190 militants 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.
Since Hamas routed forces loyal to Abbas in Gaza on June 15 in ferocious street battles, the Palestinians have been split into two entities, with the moderate president controlling the West Bank and Hamas ruling over Gaza.—AFP
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