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In targeted step, Israel frees 255 Palestinian prisoners

Hamas officials call the move, an effort to prop up Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, a tactic to widen the factional divide.

July 21, 2007|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK — The older couple found a place in the crowd and peered through the fence at an Israeli checkpoint. They had been waiting for four years.

Their son was among 255 prisoners released Friday by Israel in an effort to prop up embattled Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his emergency government here in Ramallah.

The Palestinians chanted their support as Abbas addressed the former prisoners and their relatives from the steps of the presidential palace.

"This is just the beginning," he said. "Our work must continue until every prisoner returns home."

None of the released Palestinians, who included 11 minors and six women, had been convicted of directly attacking Israelis, and most were at the end of their prison terms, according to Israeli officials.

About 10,000 Palestinians are still in Israeli prisons, and their fate is one of the key areas of contention between Israel and the Palestinians.

Friday's release was hotly debated. In Israel, some politicians argued that freeing prisoners could threaten the country's security. Palestinians also were conflicted about the amnesty, which almost singularly benefited those loyal to Abbas' Fatah faction while ignoring other prisoners.

Hamas officials dismissed the move, the first of its kind in more than three years, as an Israeli ploy to divide and conquer.

"We warn against so-called goodwill gestures because they are traps placed for us on the road, aimed to increase the split of our national unity," Ismail Haniyeh, a top Hamas leader, told reporters Friday in the Gaza Strip.

Abbas last month dismissed Haniyeh as prime minister and fired his government after Hamas fighters seized control of Gaza from Fatah's security forces. Haniyeh, however, has refused to step down and continues to govern in the coastal strip. Fatah controls the West Bank.

Hamas won the Palestinian Authority parliamentary elections in 2006. But Israel, the U.S. and some European countries consider the militant Islamist group a terrorist organization and are trying to marginalize it.

"I'm in favor of strengthening the moderates in the Palestinian Authority in ways that do not pose an unreasonable risk," Israeli Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz of the Kadima party said on Israeli radio this week. "I believe that this release constitutes a threat."

In another effort to bolster Abbas, Israel this week granted clemency to scores of wanted gunmen affiliated with Fatah after they agreed to renounce violence against Israel and turned in their weapons.

But many Palestinians remain leery of Israel's motives or argue that the measures are not wide-reaching enough.

"Israel tries to use the release for more division between the Palestinians," said Khalida Jarrar, a Palestinian lawmaker from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Her party's deputy secretary, Abdel Rahim Malouh, 61, was one of the most prominent of the prisoners released Friday. He had been arrested in 2002 and sentenced to nine years in prison for membership in a terrorist group.

On Friday, outside the gates of the Israeli checkpoint in Ramallah, hundreds of relatives and friends gathered to welcome their loved ones. They waved flags and sang songs. As the gates swung open, the crowd erupted in cheers and whistles.

The older couple, Faraj and Halima Jamhour, said they had waited four years for the release of their son, Imad, 31, who was arrested in September 2003, a week before he was to wed. When they heard he was coming home, they threw an impromptu street party, handing out sweets to their neighbors.

Although Imad's relatives were happy that he was among those released, they said the prisoner release was an Israeli political stunt.

"They're trying to use it to get better propaganda for themselves," said Mohammed Rabei, the father of Imad's fiancee, Wafa. "They should release them all -- then we'll sit and talk with them."

On Friday afternoon, the Palestinian villagers of Beit Anan in the West Bank ululated and fired their guns as Imad's convoy approached. Wafa was waiting for him at his parents' house.

"I waited four years," she said. "I was willing to wait however long it took."

But after this long wait, she could barely contain her excitement. Finally, as fireworks exploded overhead, he returned.

She looked at him and smiled.

Special correspondent Maher Abukhater contributed to this report.

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