PA Chairman: We Will Continue to Seek the Release of All Prisoners

Jonathan Lis; Amira Hass; agencies

PA Chairman: We Will Continue to Seek the Release of All Prisoners

Israel releases 255 prisoners to boost Abbas; Hamas denies PA claims some of its members were also freed.



RAMALLAH – Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas said Friday that the PA would continue to seek the release of all Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, during a festive ceremony in Ramallah welcoming the 255 Palestinian prisoners released by Israel several hours earlier.

“Our work must continue until every prisoner returns to the his home,” he said at a welcoming ceremony for the prisoners in Ramallah.

“You cannot imagine how happy we are that you came back to us,” Abbas told a crowd of about 3,000 at the presidential compound. “But our happiness is missing something because we want all 11,000 prisoners to return to their families.”

Israel released the prisoners Friday morning as a goodwill gesture meant to bolster Abbas in his power struggle with Hamas.

For Palestinians, the prisoners are heroes in the struggle for statehood, and large-scale prisoner releases are seen as an effective way for Abbas to win popularity and support. However, Israel refuses to free inmates serving time for wounding or killing Israelis. None of the prisoners being freed Friday were directly involved in attacks on Israelis, according to Israeli officials.

Israel Prison Service buses brought the freed prisoners to Beitunia checkpoint near Ramallah, where they were loaded onto Palestinian buses and brought to the West Bank city.

Some of the freed prisoners kissed the ground when they got off the Israeli buses, and they were handed Fatah hats and Palestinian flags when they arrived at Beitunia, Israel Radio reported.

All the prisoners were released by around 8 A.M., mostly from Ketziot prison in the Negev, according to the report.

“I’m very happy, it’s a great day for me,” said 18-year-old Shadi Barawshi, released two years into a five-year sentence. His tearful mother said: “I can’t believe he’s standing in front of me now.”

Muhannad Jaradat, who spent 18 years in jail, hugged his mother and said: “I will not leave you, mother.”

Israel was scheduled to free 256 prisoners, but the release of one of them was delayed at the request of security officials. According to the radio, his release was canceled due to the fact that he switched to Hamas while in prison.

Most of those freed are from Abbas’ Fatah movement.

Prominent among the freed prisoners is 61-year-old Abdel Rahim Malouh, second in command in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which assassinated Israeli minister Rehavam Ze’evi in 2001. Malouh at first refused to sign a form saying he would refrain from any terror activity in the future, without which he could not be released, but changed his mind when Abbas intervened personally, a PFLP lawmaker said.

All the prisoners signed the forms, were examined by a doctor, and met International Red Cross representatives.

Palestinian Prisoner Affairs Minister Ashraf al-Ajrami said that, while the majority of inmates belonged to Fatah, a handful of the 255 freed were Hamas members. In addition, Kedura Fares, who heads Fatah institution in charge of prisoners’ welfare, said he identified at least one Hamas and five Islamic Jihad members on the list. A Hamas spokesman in Gaza denied the report, however.

Palestinian officials welcomed Friday’s release, and said they hoped more inmates would be freed soon.

“This release breaks the ice between us and the Israelis on the issue of prisoners,” said Ziad Abu Ein, the Palestinian deputy minister of prisoner affairs.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the cabinet this week that the decision to free the prisoners was made only after checking with security officials.

“This gesture is appropriate – thus are we changing the reality in the Middle East,” Army Radio quoted Olmert as telling the cabinet. “We want to use all means of encouragement and go in the direction of real dialogue regarding arrangements between us and the Palestinians.”

Israeli prisons holding Palestinian inmates have been put on high alert in view of fears that the prisoners who are not about to be released and others identified with Hamas might turn violent in protest against the prisoners’ release.

Israel holds about 9,200 Palestinian prisoners, most of whom were arrested during the past seven years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. Almost every Palestinian family has had a member in Israeli jails at some point, and the fate of the prisoners is one of the most emotionally charged issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Friday’s release took place after the High Court of Justice rejected a petition by the Almagor Terror Victims Association against the move, Army Radio reported.

“The prisoner release is a foolhardy move that gambles with the lives of Israeli citizens,” Almagor said in its petition.

The justices ruled Thursday that the release of Palestinian prisoners was a political issue to be decided by the relevant government authorities, not by the court. Justice Elyakim Rubinstein dissented, saying the release should be delayed so the matter could be examined in depth.