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Palestinians call release of 429 prisoners inadequate

Families greet inmates freed by Israel in advance of peace talks. Abbas had demanded amnesty for 2,000.

December 04, 2007|Maher Abukhater and Richard Boudreaux | Special to The Times

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK — Jubilant relatives greeted 429 Palestinian prisoners with firecrackers, blaring horns and tearful embraces Monday after Israel freed them in a peace gesture to moderate Palestinian leaders.

Although it was the largest number of prisoners released by Israel in a single batch in nearly three years, Palestinian officials said they were far from satisfied and would keep insisting on a broader amnesty during peace talks set to begin next week.

Israel's prison service says it now holds about 8,800 Palestinians accused or convicted of security-related offenses; Palestinian officials put the number at 11,500. Many of those freed had just a few months remaining in their sentences.

Among the short-timers was Basel abu Hmaid, who was jailed in 2003 for his role in the last Palestinian uprising. He had been scheduled to be released in May. At Israel's Ofer military camp, he and others were loaded onto four Palestinian buses and driven to freedom, followed by carloads of family members who had been waiting in the West Bank a few yards away.

Later, amid the din of celebration inside the walled Ramallah compound of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Abu Hmaid voiced mixed emotions. Five of his brothers remain in prison, some serving life sentences.

"My happiness is not complete," he said. "There are thousands of prisoners waiting for the freedom. We want to see them all out soon."

Palestinian prisoners have long been an emotionally charged bargaining chip in peace negotiations. Palestinians view their jailed brethren as fighters against foreign occupation, while Israelis consider them criminals and worry that such amnesties will only encourage them to return to violence.

Israel freed 500 prisoners in February 2005 to reward Abbas for arranging a cease-fire. That was the last such amnesty until this year. In July and October, Israel released 342 inmates in two batches to help boost the Palestinian leader's standing against his rivals in the Islamic militant movement Hamas, which advocates Israel's destruction.

Nearly all the prisoners freed this year are from Abbas' Fatah movement.

Monday's release was promised last month by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, over the objection of his hawkish critics at home, to show a commitment to peace talks. With President Bush's blessing, Olmert and Abbas agreed last week at a summit in Annapolis, Md., to open formal peace talks in Jerusalem on Dec. 12.

"Israel understands it is crucial to reinforce the political dialogue by concrete actions on the ground," said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev. "We are hopeful that today's release will help to contribute to the growing momentum in the dialogue between us and the Palestinians."

Abbas, in turn, has taken steps to curb outlawed militias and the power of the Hamas movement, whose forces control the Gaza Strip. He has deployed 300 extra police officers to the unruly West Bank city of Nablus, closed 92 West Bank charity committees linked to the militant group, fired its preachers, arrested hundreds of its activists, confiscated weapons and issued a decree aimed at drying up millions of dollars in donations to Hamas from abroad.

Palestinian Authority Information Minister Riyad Maliki said that the shuttered committees were being replaced by 11 committees under the Abbas government's supervision.

But the gap between Israeli and Palestinian expectations on the issues of prisoners and West Bank security remains wide. The number of prisoners released fell short of the 2,000 Abbas had demanded, in part because Olmert's government opposed freeing anyone convicted of killing Israelis.

The two sides are also at odds over another Israeli concession announced before the Annapolis conference: the delivery of 25 used Russian armored vehicles to help Palestinian police in the West Bank crack down on militants. Israel Radio reported Monday that Israel held up the deal after rejecting a Palestinian demand that the vehicles be mounted with machine guns.

Skepticism about peace negotiations runs deep on both sides, even among those who gathered for the prisoner release.

Those freed, 409 from the West Bank and 20 from the Gaza Strip, were required to sign statements pledging not to return to militant activity. But many Palestinians viewed the release as part of a revolving-door cycle, noting that Israeli forces continue to round up suspected militants in nightly raids in the Palestinian territories.

The Israeli army reported making 42 such arrests in the West Bank and Gaza on Monday and killing three Hamas militants in Gaza.

Amjad Shihadeh, who served seven years of a 16-year sentence for weapons possession, rode a bus to freedom Monday as friends and relatives reached through windows to clasp the prisoners' hands.

It was a pivotal event for Shihadeh's parents, seven brothers and four sisters, who traveled from the nearby village of Deir Ammar for the celebration. Three of his brothers had decided to postpone marriage until his expected release in 2016, said Mohammed, an older brother who is married.

Hearing last month that his freedom would come early, the brothers began scrambling to plan a joint wedding for themselves and Amjad, 33.

"Now they are looking for wives," Mohammed said.

Special correspondent Abukhater reported from Ramallah and Times staff writer Boudreaux from Jerusalem.

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