Israel Releases 429 Palestinian Prisoners in Gesture to Abbas

Move meant as goodwill gesture toward Abbas; imprisoned Fatah leader Barghouti: Israel could have freed 8,000.

Israel on Monday released 429 Palestinian prisoners, in a gesture meant to strengthen Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after both sides decided at last week's U.S.-sponsored Mideast conference to try to reach a peace deal by the end of 2008.

At 11 A.M., all 21 Gaza prisoners had crossed into the coastal territory through the Erez crossing. A welcome reception was held for the West Bank prisoners in Ramallah, at Abbas' headquarters.

The prisoners, most of them from President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement, were given a joyous welcome as they arrived at checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza. Cars honked horns, tearful relatives raised Fatah flags and pictures of Abbas and some carried prisoners on their shoulders.

"There's nothing better than freedom," said Salem al-Saqqa, about 30, after he reached Gaza and kissed his mother. Al-Saqa had served four years of an 11 year term, and said that Abbas must do everything he can to win the relase of the thousands still imprisoned by Israel.

As buses carrying the prisoners rolled into Abbas' walled compound, relatives jumped up to kiss them. Some prisoners climbed out of windows, impatient to greet their families.

Tearful reunions played out again and again: Prisoners embraced weeping parents, sometimes abashed at their mothers' ululating. Some were hoisted on shoulders.

Abdel Raouf Injas, 52, was waiting for his 31-year-old son Khaled, whose 12-year sentence was cut in half. Injas said he wanted to get Khaled married as quickly as possible, and said his son planned to study for a master's degree at a West Bank university.

Injas said he had two more sons in prison. "I'm feeling good, but it's incomplete," he said of the release. Parents of some prisoners said they were eager to make up for lost time.

Israel decided on the gesture before the Mideast summit held in Annapolis, Maryland last week. The prisoners were scheduled to be released on Sunday, but the move was delayed at the Palestinian Authority's request.

Over the past few days the prisoners have received medical checkups and met with representatives of the Red Cross, the Prisons Service said in a statement. They also signed a declaration committing to refrain from terror activities.

Israel is holding more than 9,000 Palestinian security prisoners, who comprise almost half of all inmates in Israeli jails. Their freedom is a central Palestinian demand, and Monday's release is intended to strengthen Abbas in his struggle against the militant Islamic Hamas. Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip from forces loyal to Abbas in June, and remains firmly in control there.

Abbas' government had asked that 2,000 prisoners be freed, but Israel refused. Including the prisoners released on Monday, about 770 Palestinians will have been freed since July, a number the Palestinians find wanting.

On Sunday, imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti called Israel's plan to release 429 prisoners "a joke," after members of the Knesset's Internal Affairs and Environment Committee visited him at the Hadarim prison.

In an answer to a question posed by committee chairman MK Ophir Pines-Paz (Labor), Barghouti said that Israel could have easily freed 8,000 Palestinian prisoners and added that the prisoners that are due for release were supposed to be released anyway in a few months.

When asked by MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would end, Barghouti said, "The end of the conflict is very near. We just need a leader with courage to sign [an agreement]."

Barghouti added that if a permanent settlement is reached, Gaza residents would agree to the solution of two states for two peoples.

Barghouti also complained that prisoners have not been given the right to make telephone calls. The complaint was raised again later at a meeting between committee members and Israel Prison Services Commissioner Benny Kaniak, after Pines-Paz asked why it was possible for Yitzhak Rabin's murderer Yigal Amir to carry a cellular phone, while Palestinian prisoners were not even allowed to hold phone conversations.

Kaniak responded that the Israel Prisons Service was the only body fighting to limit Amir's freedoms, and maintained that every extra right given to Amir was made by a legal decision.

On Sunday Prime Minister Ehud Olmert dampened optimism from the Mideast conference, saying Israel does not recognize the 2008 target date as a deadline for peacemaking.

"There is no commitment to a specific timetable regarding these negotiations," Olmert told his Cabinet, adding that before steps are taken, Palestinians must halt militants' attacks against Israel.