MIDDLE EAST Varied emotions arise after prisoner release
Many Palestinians consider the motion insufficient.
RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Israel released nearly 400 Palestinian prisoners Thursday, following through on a pledge made at a Middle East summit in February in which the Israeli and Palestinian leaders declared a truce.
The release completed a promise to free 900 prisoners and came after Wednesday's announcement that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would meet June 21.
Sharon, under U.S. pressure to bolster Abbas, said this week that the prisoner release was meant to strengthen the Palestinian leader, who is facing a strong challenge from the Islamic militant group Hamas.
Even as the former prisoners were given a hero's welcome at dropping-off points in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the freed inmates and Palestinian officials called the release inadequate, saying that long-serving prisoners, as well as sick and female convicts, should have been released first.
There are more than 7,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, and Palestinian officials say their freedom is a key to any peace agreement with the Israelis. Most Palestinians have friends or relatives in prison.
The issue is also a sensitive one in Israel, where the prisoners are widely considered terrorists who should remain behind bars. Sharon said that none of those released had been convicted of killing or wounding Israelis.
A total of 398 prisoners were freed Thursday, after two chose to remain in prison, the army said. One detainee wanted to stay with his jailed brother, and a second preferred to finish high school diploma exams as part of a prison education program, said a spokesman for the Israeli Prisons Service.
Unlike previous releases, in which many of the prisoners were near the end of their terms, most of those freed Thursday had served less than two-thirds of their sentences, an army official said. Most were members of Abbas' Fatah faction.
In Ramallah, two buses carrying freed prisoners pulled up to the Palestinian presidential compound, with flag-waving youths on the roofs of the vehicles and jubilant former prisoners leaning out the windows.
The freed detainees, flashing V-signs and draped in checked Palestinian scarves, were mobbed as they got off the bus. Some were hoisted on the shoulders of well-wishers and carried to waiting relatives and friends who smothered them with hugs and kisses. Gunmen fired in the air.
Shaker Ziada, 35, who served three years of a 10-year term for armed activities in the militant al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an offshoot of Fatah, said he would have gladly changed places with long-serving prisoners whom he said deserved to be released first.
"This is a very small step and it is inadequate," Ziada said. "Without the release of all the prisoners there cannot be any peace process. This is not on a level that can satisfy the Palestinian public."