More than 400 Palestinian prisoners came home to a heroes’ welcome on Monday after the latest Israeli release aimed at boosting President Mahmoud Abbas during the revived peace process.
Thousands of singing and dancing well-wishers waving Palestinian flags gathered to greet the buses filled with the smiling ex-detainees as they pulled up at the Palestinian Authority headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
”I feel like I’ve been born again,” said a gleaming Muayad Nasrallah, a 28-year-old who had served four years of his nine-year sentence.
”But my happiness is not complete because I left hundreds of my brothers behind me in jail,” he said, referring to the more than 11 000 Palestinian prisoners currently detained by Israel.
The detainees, grinning and flashing victory signs, began to leave the Ketziot Prison in Israel’s southern Negev desert in buses as dawn broke.
Out of the 429 prisoners to be released, 409 were to return to their homes in the occupied West Bank with the remaining 20 going to the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.
The release was the third aimed at strengthening Abbas in his stand-off with Hamas since the Islamist movement seized the Gaza Strip in mid-June.
”Today’s release of Palestinian prisoners is aimed at reinforcing moderate Palestinian leaders and at favouring political dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians,” government spokesperson Mark Regev said.
”We understand that it is necessary to accompany the peace process with concrete measures, and the liberation of the Palestinian prisoners is a step in this direction,” he said.
As they underwent their final check before being handcuffed and placed on the buses in the early-morning chill, many of the detainees joked with prison guards.
Some held plastic bags with their personal belongings; others clutched prayer rugs. Unlike previous releases, when the prisoners were driven home to the Palestinian territories in windowless buses, this time they were placed in vehicles normally used for tour groups.
As in previous releases, most of those freed on Monday belonged to Abbas’s secular Fatah party and none had been implicated in attacks that killed Israelis.
Monday’s release was originally scheduled to occur ahead of a Middle East peace conference in the United States city of Annapolis on November 27, but was delayed for unspecified reasons.
The Israeli Cabinet approved the release ahead of the US conference as a goodwill gesture to Abbas. But the release fell short of a Palestinian request that Israel free 2 000 prisoners — out of the more than 11 000 that it currently detains — ahead of the summit.
Israel freed more than 80 prisoners in early October and more than 250 in July, gestures aimed at boosting Abbas after Hamas routed his forces in Gaza.
The Hamas takeover split the Palestinians between two effective authorities with the Islamists running the Gaza Strip — the smaller half of the Palestinians’ future state — and Abbas retaining control of autonomous areas of the occupied West Bank.
Since the rout, Israel has sought to boost Abbas and isolate Hamas, a group pledged to the destruction of the Jewish state.
At the Annapolis conference, Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert formally relaunched peace talks after a seven-year freeze, saying negotiators would aim to reach a comprehensive peace deal by the end of 2008.
Both leaders, however, face formidable internal obstacles, which observers warn may derail peace efforts once again.
Hamas challenges Abbas’s authority to negotiate on behalf of all Palestinians, while Olmert presides over a coalition some of whose members have threatened to leave the Cabinet if he makes concessions on core issues. — Sapa-AFP