Israel Releases 398 Palestinian Prisoners, Two Refuse to Go Home

Amos Harel
Arnon Regular
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Amos Harel
Arnon Regular

Israel released 398 Palestinian prisoners yesterday, thereby fulfilling a promise made to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit in February.

Two other prisoners had been slated for release, but refused to go. One said he wanted to stay to complete his matriculation examinations, while the other wanted to remain with his brother, who was not being freed.

The released prisoners included ones from Fatah, Hamas and the leftist factions, but none from Islamic Jihad, because that organization has attempted several attacks against Israel recently. None of those freed was involved in fatal attacks against Israelis. Unlike in previous releases, however, many had not yet completed serving two-thirds of their sentence.

Brigadier General Miki Barel, commander of the Military Police, said he heard prisoners expressing hope that this was the start of a genuine change in Israeli-Palestinian relations, unlike the sentiments expressed in previous prisoner releases over which he has presided.

An Israel Defense Forces bus brought the prisoners to the Erez checkpoint in Gaza and to four checkpoints in the West Bank. Many of the prisoners' families had been awaiting their arrival at the checkpoints since early morning.

The 77 prisoners who were let off at Bitounia, southwest of Ramallah, were promptly taken into the city for a festive reception at PA headquarters in the Muqata and a visit to Yasser Arafat's grave. Dozens of armed members of Fatah's Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades escorted them, firing in the air en route. Abbas, who underwent an angioplasty procedure in Jordan on Wednesday, was not present, so the prisoners were greeted instead by his bureau chief, Tayyib Abd al-Rahim.

One of the most prominent prisoners released yesterday was Abu Hassan Al-Hijawi, 46, who has done several stints in Israeli jails over the years because of his membership in Fatah. He was most recently arrested in 2002 and sentenced to eight years in jail. In Meggido Prison, he maintained close contact with the PA, the press and prisoners in other jails, and gradually assumed the role of spokesman for all the Palestinian prisoners in Israel.

After reuniting with his wife and two daughters in Nablus yesterday, Al-Hijawi said he and the other freed prisoners were looking forward to playing an active role in the PA's upcoming parliamentary elections.

"The time has come to make order in the Fatah movement, and to impose discipline on its members, in order to succeed in the elections," he said. "The current generation of prisoners is less disciplined and less committed to the idea than the veteran prisoners. But just as we spoke to them in jail, we will speak with them outside, because we need to revitalize Fatah and its popularity in the Palestinian street."

Nadav Shragai adds:

Almagor, an association of terror victims, denounced the release, charging that the freed prisoners included people who planted bombs that could have caused multiple casualties had they not been discovered in time, people involved in weapons production, and people who sent others on attacks. Some of those freed refused to sign a declaration to refrain from terror in the future, said Almagor head Meir Indor. He also charged that, contrary to official proclamations, Islamic Jihad members were freed yesterday.

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