Prisoner release Dec. 18, 2011 (Reuters)
Palestinians celebrate in the West Bank city of Ramallah, December 18, 2011, as they wait for the arrival of released prisoners. Photo by Reuters
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The second stage of an Israel-Hamas prisoner swap was completed Sunday, as Israel released 550 Palestinian prisoners into the Palestinian territories and Jordan.

The prisoners began crossing over from Israel at 2000 GMT.

Hundreds of supporters and relatives, singing, dancing and waving Palestinian flags, were waiting at Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah, where the vast majority of the prisoners were to be dropped off. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was not scheduled to make any address, because he had left for Jordan.

A bus carrying 41 prisoners made its way from the Kerem Shalom crossing point into Gaza City.

Two other prisoners from Jordan were to cross the border with Israel's eastern neighbor via the Allenby Bridge over the Jordan River. Another two were being released in East Jerusalem.

A spokesman for the Hamas armed wing told a news conference in Gaza City that Sunday's release completed the prisoner exchange, whereby Israel freed a total of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in return for a soldier held captive in Gaza for more than five years.

Hours before the release got underway, hundreds of Palestinians clashed with Israeli soldiers at a central West Bank checkpoint. They were among the crowd gathered at Beitunia, southwest of Ramallah, anxiously awaiting their relatives who were being freed.

Tempers ran high, and, when youths began pushing the nearby security fence and throwing rocks, soldiers fired tear gas and stun grenades, witnesses said. An Israeli military spokeswoman said some of the protesters lobbed firebombs.

Several people were injured after inhaling tear gas.

Israel Prison Service (IPS) spokeswoman Sivan Weizman said that 55 of those to be freed Sunday were minors, ages 14-17, having apparently been held for up to 18 months for throwing stones and firebombs.

The prisoners included six women, the IPS said.

None of the prisoners released Sunday was serving a life term.

Most are members of the armed wing of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement.

Many were sentenced for attacks that caused no major casualties.

Palestinian Prisoner Affairs Minister Issa Karakeh expressed disappointment that Israel picked prisoners for the second stage who had only a few months left to serve.

"Hamas should have paid attention to the second group like the first, and should not have left it up to Israel to decide who to release," he said.

A count carried out by dpa from the list published by Israel found that around half the prisoners freed Sunday were scheduled to have been released by the first half of 2012.

In the first stage, carried out on October 18, Israel released 477 Palestinian militants, many serving multiple life sentences, in return for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held hostage for more than five years by the Islamist movement, which rules Gaza.

Under the Egyptian-mediated deal, Hamas hand-picked many of the names freed in the first stage, while Israel decided who to release in the second round. Ahead of the exchange, all 550 prisoners had been moved Thursday to two central facilities, one near Tel Aviv and another at a military base outside Ramallah.

Because of the late hour of the release, no immediate mass celebrations were planned in the West Bank and Gaza.

Hamas had welcomed the first wave with a huge reception in a Gaza City park; the second wave includes no members of the Islamist movement, residents said.

Families had driven to Ramallah from other cities across the West Bank, waiting anxiously for the arrival of their relatives.

Israel's High Court of Justice late Saturday rejected petitions against the release, filed by relatives of Israelis killed in attacks by Palestinian militants, Israel Radio reported.

The court ruled that the issue had political and security ramifications and therefore was a government decision in which it would not intervene.

A military spokeswoman, asked by dpa, said 330 Palestinians had been arrested on security-related charges since October 18, but roughly as many had gone free.

Some 4,250 Palestinians in Israeli prisons for security-related offenses, the IPS said. That is down from almost 5,300 before the Shalit deal.

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