Home Page

Israel Frees Palestinian Prisoners

Israel Frees Palestinian Prisoners
Date: 26.08.08
Source: The New York Times
By Myra Noveck and Tom Rachman

JERUSALEM — Israel released almost 200 Palestinian prisoners Monday in a good-will gesture aimed at reinvigorating the faltering peace process. Hours later, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in the country to make her own push for a deal between the two sides.

With President Bush leaving office in January, his administration has been seeking a peace agreement before the end of the year, but the efforts have brought little progress so far. Ms. Rice arrived Monday for two days of talks with top Israeli and Palestinian officials, her seventh trip to the region since November.

But doubts remain about the political ability of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel to conclude any deal, with his resignation set for next month over an ongoing corruption scandal. He could stay on in a caretaker role, but his widespread unpopularity among Israelis is certain to hamper any push for a deal.

A total of 198 prisoners were set free Monday from Ofer Prison, near the West Bank, on Monday and transferred to Palestinian custody at the Betuniya crossing point near Ramallah, a spokesman for the Israel Prisons Authority, Yaron Zamir, said.

The release sought to bolster the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who is engaged in a struggle for authority among Palestinians, with his Fatah party governing only the West Bank, while its opponent, Hamas, rules in the Gaza Strip. In Ramallah, crowds greeted the released prisoners as heroes.

Israel holds about 9,000 Palestinian security prisoners, meaning they are detained over offenses ranging from bomb attacks to involvement in militant organizations. Mr. Abbas has repeatedly demanded their release.

On Sunday night, the Israeli High Court of Justice rejected a petition from an organization of terror victims, Almagor, against the release.

Among those freed Monday were two men whom Israel says have “blood on their hands,” meaning they had been convicted in attacks that harmed Israelis. Said al-Atabeh, 57, who had been in custody since 1977, was the longest-serving Palestinian prisoner.

“This is a great joy for our mothers and our people, but it remains a small step because we left behind us thousands of prisoners,” Mr. Atabeh said after his release, according to Reuters.

Mr. Atabeh had been convicted in bombings that killed one Israeli woman and wounded dozens of people.

A second long-serving prisoner was Mohammed Abu Ali, who had been jailed since 1980 for the murder of an Israeli settler in the West Bank.

However, most of those set free had been arrested for lesser crimes within the past two years.

“It’s not easy for Israel to release prisoners,” said a government spokesman, Mark Regev, according to The Associated Press. “But we understand the importance of the prisoner issue for Palestinian society.”

Myra Noveck reported from Jerusalem and Tom Rachman from Paris.