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Israel's Prisoner Release Meets Scorn

Palestinians call the goodwill measure too limited, as peace talks reach a low point. Israel decries the lack of action against militant groups.

August 07, 2003|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

TARQUMIYA CHECKPOINT, West Bank — Israel freed hundreds of Palestinian prisoners Wednesday in a neatly choreographed release meant to show its willingness to sacrifice for peace. But frenzied homecomings at checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were scorned by Palestinian leaders -- and inmates themselves -- as a bid by Israel to polish its image.

"I'm frustrated," said Adnan Jaber, a newly freed 61-year-old candy maker from Bethlehem, who watched the crowd through eyeglasses held together with dingy medical tape. "I was going to be released in a month anyway. This is just a show."

The U.S.-backed "road map," the latest peace plan for the region, doesn't oblige Israel to release prisoners, but Palestinians have said that peace cannot be forged without it. Palestinian officials boycotted the tearful homecomings of the more than 300 men, saying the festivities made a mockery of their demands that Israel release thousands of men, women and juveniles who remain in jails and detention camps.

Israeli leaders said freeing the prisoners was a goodwill gesture, and they pointed out what they called Palestinian shortcomings in the peace process.

"It must be remembered that the Palestinians have not yet begun fulfilling their obligations -- there is no Palestinian action to dismantle the terror infrastructure," Amnon Perlman, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, told reporters Wednesday.

During the Palestinian intifada, hundreds of Israelis have died in suicide bombings and other attacks by Palestinian militants.

The hard feelings over the prisoner release followed a series of clashes that have sunk the peace process to what is arguably its lowest point since Israeli, Palestinian and U.S. leaders met for a groundbreaking summit in June in Aqaba, Jordan.

Many of the prisoners were freed days or weeks before they were to be released. No women, and only a handful of juveniles, walked out of prison Wednesday. Israel has promised to release about 100 more Palestinians in coming days, but only common criminals, not the political or security detainees lionized as war prisoners on Palestinian streets.

"Israel just wants the world to see that they're doing something," said Fadi Salhoub, who waited for his uncle among the chanting, sunbaked crowds.

The first buses creaked from the prisons before dawn Wednesday. Having signed a pledge to forswear terrorism in exchange for freedom, the prisoners clutched worn duffel bags and watched the land flash past on the road to the Palestinian territories.

The Israeli government had asked Palestinian officials to bring families to the checkpoints in buses, and it invited journalists to record the reunions. But amid the rowdy cheers, some freed prisoners were griping.

"How can I be happy?" said Abdul Majid Atta as he climbed down from a bus. "We leave sick people behind. We leave children behind."

The release played out against a backdrop of stalled peace talks, irate leaders and unfinished obligations. More than a month into a three-month cease-fire, Palestinian forces haven't disarmed the militant factions, and Israel hasn't stopped settlement expansion.

To protest the small-scale prisoner release, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas called off a meeting with Sharon that had been planned for Wednesday.

Earlier this week, after a West Bank shooting attack by Palestinians that wounded an Israeli woman and her children, Israel refused to withdraw its soldiers from any more West Bank cities until the Palestinians dismantled militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The Israeli government also decided this week to extend the closure of Orient House, the Palestinian Chamber of Commerce and other shuttered East Jerusalem institutions whose reopening is explicitly ordered in the first stage of the peace plan.

Still, as the crowd caught a glimpse of the first Israeli bus rolling toward it through the afternoon heat, the olive groves echoed with the sounds of celebration. The men whistled, children banged on makeshift drums, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad flags were thrust skyward alongside Palestinian banners.

"God is great!" the men hollered, and a few of the prisoners squeezed their heads out of the narrow windows to grin into the faces below.

"To Jerusalem we're going!" the families chanted. "Martyrs, millions of martyrs, marching toward Jerusalem!"

Catching a glimpse of her son, a lone woman broke through military barricades and fought her way to the bus. She stretched up a hand, the young man laced his arm out the window and for a moment their fingers touched. Then an Israeli soldier pulled her away. "Wait, please wait," he said in Arabic.

"I just want to see my son!" she yelled.

Throughout the 34 months of the current Palestinian uprising, the arrest of working-age men became a regular aspect of life in the Palestinian territories.

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