Chairman Abbas Pledges to Work Toward Release of All 11,000 Palestinian Prisoners

The reception Friday for the 255 Palestinian prisoners released from Israeli jails lasted for three hours, and not a single shot was fired. None were fired at the Beitunia checkpoint, to the Palestinian side of which eight Palestinian buses were brought to receive the prisoners at 11:15 a.m., following a four-hour, handcuffed ride in Prisons Service buses from Ketziot Prison in the Negev. None were fired at the Muqata, where Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas welcomed them.

In recent years, gunmen of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and the various security services forced on the Palestinian public volleys of gunfire at every opportunity: mourning, joy, the semblance of victory, and political and interorganizational debates. Not this time.

It may be assumed that the 255 released prisoners were not welcomed by celebratory gunfire because nobody was pretending that this was a political victory. On the contrary, all of the discussions held on the day of the release and beforehand were careful to note that the release did not meet Palestinian demands and expectations, neither in terms of numbers, the identity of those released nor the fact that the Israeli authorities refused to negotiate over the matter.

Mohanad Jaradat, from Silat al Harithiya near Jenin, is the most veteran of the prisoners. He was sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment of which he served 18. "When I heard my name being read on the radio on Tuesday," he told Haaretz, "I was sure it was a mistake. After all, none of the prisoners jailed before the Olso Accords was being released. I welcome this mistake, but my joy is only partial. I don't understand why Israel refuses to release my friends from Fatah and the other PLO organizations, who like me were sentenced before Oslo and have been in jail for 25 or 30 years. They are all elderly, some are very sick. This is vengeance and nothing more."

Jaradat's mother left her home at 5 A.M. and made her way through the many checkpoints, arriving at the Muqata at around 10. Many hundreds of other relatives came, like her, from all over the West Bank to welcome their loved ones. It took almost an hour for the convoy of buses and dozens of cars and taxis to travel about seven kilometers from the Beitunia checkpoint.

One bus was reserved for the six women prisoners released. Even at Beitunia, their marginal status could be perceived. Like the men, they waved at those waiting at the checkpoint, but few approached them, and no one jumped on the bus to shake their hands or embrace them. Once inside the Muqata, they were surrounded by their relatives.

No one was waiting for Ziyad Issa, who was born in the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza. He was arrested five years ago at his workplace, the Coca-Cola plant in Ramallah. Issa had been a resident of Ramallah since 1997, but he has no relatives there and still does not have a place to live. His mother managed to get permission to visit him only twice during his entire prison term. Issa was released about a year and a half before the end of his sentence, but when asked about the accusations against him, he said, "That is the past. I don't want to talk about it." He stood looking a little isolated and embarrassed in the crowd, until a policeman in civilian clothing who knew him from work six years ago identified him, embraced him and even cried from excitement.

The former prisoners did not speak on their own initiative about the pledge they signed before their release. No one is judging them for their willingness to sign. Moreover, as an activist for one of the prisoner organizations said, "We reject the claim that we were involved in terror, and that the struggle for national liberation is terror. Therefore, we have no problem signing a statement that we will not be involved in terror."

Abd al-Rahim Malukh, 61, is the most senior political figure among the prisoners: He is the deputy secretary general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and a member of the PLO Executive Committee. In 2002, he was sentenced to seven years in prison for membership and holding office in a prohibited organization. According to his friends, he refused to sign the special pledge prepared for him, stating that he would not return to involvement in the activities outlined in the charges against him. Only Mahmoud Abbas' personal intervention made his release possible, without him signing this pledge, his associates said.

Malukh stood beside Abbas during the latter's speech in honor of the released prisoners to a crowd of a few hundred. Abbas pledged to continue his efforts to bring about the release of all 11,000 Palestinian prisoners. Malukh, in a short address, mentioned by name some of the Hamas members of the Palestinian Legislative Council who are now in prison in Israel, and said that he expected to see them freed soon, together with the longest-serving prisoners, like Sa'id al-Antebe from Nablus (30 years), and Marwan Barghouti.

Most of those released Friday are members of Fatah; a minority are members of smaller PLO groups. Accodring to the deputy minister for prisoner affairs, Ziyad Abu-Ein, prisoners who are members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad were also released. Kadura Fares, head of the Fatah Prisoner's Club, said he identified the name of one man on the list who was a senior member of Hamas and another five names of Islamic Jihad members.

The Hamas spokesman in Gaza said Abu-Ein's statement was incorrect. One released prisoner said he believed these were prisoners who were sentenced for membership in Islamic organizations, but moved over to Fatah during their imprisonment. Either way, at the end of Friday prayers at the Sajaiyeh mosque in Gaza, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said he was pleased about the release of every Palestinian prisoner, but warned that Israel was using the release as a kind of political bribe.