Abbas welcomes Palestinian prisoners.
Abbas welcoming the released Palestinian prisoners in Ramallah, August 14, 2013. Photo by AFP
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Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said early Wednesday morning that he would continue to work to get all the Palestinians imprisoned in Israel jails released, and that the first group of 26 was only the beginning.

Despite the late hour, Abbas waited at PA headquarters at the Muqata in Ramallah to welcome the 11 prisoners who were released to the West Bank. When they returned, he said, to the cheers of the waiting families, “Allah will help us return all our prisoners. To those who are still imprisoned we say, we will not rest until you are with us.”

The 15 prisoners who were released to Gaza were greeted with shots in the air and fireworks at a ceremony on the Palestinian side of the Erez crossing. Despite early reports that Gazans had been ordered not to hold celebrations, official Palestinian television broadcast the events from Gaza live, and the reporter and interviewees, most of whom are affiliated with Fatah, heaped praise on Abbas and the PA leadership.

The prisoners at both arrival points looked excited but exhausted. The welcoming ceremonies at both locations lasted more than two hours, after which they dispersed and the prisoners were brought in convoys to their homes, where the families had erected tents and distributed sweets to the well-wishers.

All the prisoners interviewed expressed concern for those who were still behind bars.

“We’re happy today and there is no doubt that the release is a victory for us, and we felt the support of the Palestinian people for the prisoners, but we cannot forget that there are still thousands in prison and they must be released,” said Khaled Asakra of Bethlehem, who had served 23 years of a life sentence.

The prisoners also reported feeling tense during the final hours before they were released, fearing that the plan to release them might be disrupted or that Israel would change its mind.

Palestinian prisoner activists now question when the next stage of prisoner releases will take place and whether there are, in fact, understandings regarding the release of the rest of the 104 veteran security prisoners, among them Israeli Arabs.

A senior PA official said that Abbas seemed determined and confident that all the prisoners would be released by the end of the nine months of talks agreed upon, regardless of how much progress was made, and that apparently this confidence had some basis.

“I hope we won’t be disappointed,” the official said.