August 26, 2008

Israel Frees 198 Palestinians From Jail Rice, Arriving for Visit, Acknowledges ‘Work Ahead’ on Peace

By Isabel Kershner

Israel on Monday released 198 Palestinian prisoners in a move intended to bolster President Mahmoud Abbas, hours before Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in the region to try to nudge forward halting Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

Before embarking on two days of talks with top Israeli and Palestinian officials, Rice said on her plane to Tel Aviv that there was a "lot of work ahead" if the sides hoped to reach their goal of a peace agreement by the end of the year.

Rice also said it was "extremely important to just keep making forward progress rather than prematurely to come to some set of conclusions," according to news reports - an apparent acknowledgement of the reluctance of Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to come to a hasty partial agreement despite the eagerness of the Bush administration for results before its term ends in January.

While Rice's visits here have become routine - this is her seventh since this round of peacemaking began in November - the prisoner release was a rare cause for celebration in the West Bank. Jubilant Palestinians clambered atop buses that carried the freed prisoners into Ramallah, and a convoy of cars bedecked with flags, horns honking, accompanied them to the presidential headquarters, where hundreds of relatives were waiting.

Departing from its usual policy of not releasing Palestinians with "blood on their hands," Israel this time included two veteran prisoners sentenced for life for murdering Israelis, saying they no longer presented any significant risk.

One, Said al-Ataba, was convicted in 1977 for a bombing that killed an Israeli woman. The other, Muhammad Abu Ali, was convicted in 1980 for killing an Israeli student in the West Bank and, later, for killing a fellow prisoner whom he suspected of collaborating with Israel.

Ataba was affiliated with the leftist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine at the time of his attack, while Abu Ali was elected while in jail as a legislator for the Fatah Party led by Abbas.

Abbas addressed the crowd from the steps of his office, stating that "there will be no peace without the release of all the prisoners."

About 9,000 Palestinian security prisoners remain in Israel's jails, according to the Israeli Prisons Authority. Palestinian officials put the number at 11,000. Gaining the release of hundreds of long-term prisoners like Ataba is a priority for Abbas.

About half those released Monday were in any case scheduled to be freed within the next year. Several dozen others were serving medium terms on charges like shooting at Israelis and laying explosives. One of three women released, Khawla Zeitawi, was sentenced in January 2007 for two years for membership in an illegal organization. Fully veiled, she returned with a baby who had been born in prison.

The release of prisoners has been one of the few tangible benefits of the peace process for ordinary Palestinians, with the prisoner issue always high on the public agenda. Despite intensive talks with Israel, Abbas has not been able to show much progress in other spheres, like the removal of major West Bank roadblocks or unauthorized settler outposts. At the same time, his power is challenged by Hamas, the rival Islamic group that rejects the peace process and has taken over Gaza, routing Fatah forces there last year.

Almost a thousand prisoners, mostly Fatah and a few from leftist groups, have been released in four rounds since Hamas took control of Gaza.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel, said the idea was "to strengthen the moderate and pragmatic Palestinian leadership" and to show that engagement brought more results than extremism.

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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