August 26, 2008

Israel Frees 198 Palestinians to ‘Create Goodwill’

By Kim Sengupta

Israel freed 198 Palestinian prisoners yesterday amid scenes of jubilation in the West Bank. Unusually, among those released were two men accused by Israel of having "blood on their hands": Said al- Atabeh, the longest-serving inmate in custody, and Mohammed Abu Ali, the second longest-serving, who had been elected as a Fatah MP while behind bars.

Although the Israeli government has released prisoners in the past, it had taken a hard line on those, such as al-Atabeh and Abu Ali, who have been convicted of killing Israeli citizens. But yesterday's gesture was described by officials as a "confidence- building move", an attempt to bolster the position of the Fatah leader and Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas.

The move came as Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, flew in to try to salvage a stagnating peace process. The Bush administration wants a deal between the Israelis and Palestinians by the end of the year, but that seems unlikely, with the US President, George Bush, soon to leave office, the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, due to step down with the possibility of a trial for alleged corruption, and Mr Abbas under intense pressure from Hamas.

Ms Rice, who broke off from dealing with the ongoing crisis in Georgia to visit Israel and the Palestinian territories, is expected to urge both sides to show greater flexibility during talks. But the general feeling on both sides is one of pessimism.

Several members of the Israeli cabinet had opposed freeing Palestinians convicted of violence against Israeli citizens, but a ministerial committee approved the list a week ago.

In Ramallah, among the music and dancing to welcome the prisoners, the overall message was that it does not change much.

Al-Atabeh, who was convicted of bombings that killed an Israeli woman and injured about a dozen others in 1977, said: "This is a great joy for our mothers and our people, but it remains a small step because we left behind thousands of prisoners. We cannot rest until they, too, are freed."

Israel holds about 9,000 prisoners and Palestinians complained that further arrests were being carried out even as the prisoner release was being announced.

Ratib Jabbar, 51, who was waiting for his 26-year-old son, Amjad, who was being freed after serving two-and-a-half years of a nine- year sentence after a shoot-out with Israeli forces, said: "Of course, I am very glad he is coming home. But the Israelis were in Ramallah again last night. They broke down doors and took away some people. So even when people are coming out of jails, others are taking their place."

Another of Mr Jabbar's sons, 16-year-old Mohammad Adem, was killed nine months ago. "He was throwing stones and they shot him," said Mr Jabbar. "I grieve to lose such a son. It would be more bearable if there was some chance of peace, but I do not think that is going to happen."

The prisoners were brought to the Beituniya checkpoint near Ramallah from Ofer jail in Israeli vehicles, through cheering crowds. Addressing a crowd of several thousand, Mr Abbas said: "There is no doubt that we seek peace and we are trying to seek our goals - and there won't be peace without the release of all prisoners."

Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Prime Minister's office, said: "It's not easy for Israel to release prisoners." But, he added: "We believe this action can support the negotiation process and create goodwill."

After returning to his family, Amjad Jabbar went to the graveside of his brother. "We believe in what we are fighting for," he said. "But so many young people are being lost. Most people would like peace, but there must be justice as well."

(c) 2008 Independent, The; London (UK). Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.