RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) – Israel freed more than 250 Palestinian prisoners on Friday as part of a U.S.-backed deal to bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after Hamas Islamists took over the Gaza Strip last month.
The prisoners, mostly members of Abbas’s secular Fatah faction, arrived in the West Bank city of Ramallah where they were greeted by Abbas and reunited with family members.
“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.”
On Thursday, the Quartet of international powers mediating in the Middle East reaffirmed its support for Abbas and for U.S.-sponsored talks to try to revive a peace process that all but died after Hamas won parliamentary elections last year, prompting crippling economic sanctions on the Palestinians.
At Ramallah, many of the prisoners released waved Palestinian flags as they stepped off buses at the end of their journey from the Kitsiyot prison in southern Israel.
“I’m very happy, it’s a great day for me,” said 18-year-old Shadi Darawshi, released two years into a five-year sentence. His tearful mother said: “I can’t believe he’s standing in front of me now.”
Mohannad Jaradat, who spent 18 years in jail, hugged his mother and said: “I will not leave you, mother.”
Hamas, shunned by Israel and Western powers for refusing to renounce violence against the Jewish state, routed Fatah forces in Gaza last month, prompting Abbas to dismiss the government it led and to install a new administration in the larger West Bank.
The schism between the two Palestinian territories has left hopes for establishing a state in disarray. However, eagerness in the West to marginalise Hamas, which has friendly ties in Iran and Syria, has secured an end to sanctions on Abbas’s new government as well as a number of concessions from Israel.
Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas in Gaza who still calls himself prime minister, told worshippers after weekly prayers: “We are happy at the release of any Palestinian prisoner.
“But we warn against the use of these issues as political bribes and traps on the road of Israeli good intentions.”
Criticised by some in Israel for releasing militants, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has spelled out that freeing prisoners who do not have “blood on their hands” is a goodwill gesture.
Besides the release of prisoners, Israel has agreed to stop hunting dozens of militants loyal mainly to Fatah groups, in return for promises that they return to civilian life.
Hamas, on the other hand, remains embargoed, isolated and under occasional assault from Israeli raids in the Gaza Strip amid rocket attacks from Palestinian militants in the area.
“A reality reminiscent of the one in the north will not be formed in Gaza,” Olmert said on Friday at a farmers’ convention in Northern Israel, referring to last summer’s war with Hezbollah, which fired hundreds of rockets from Lebanon.
“(But) I do not think the way to handle (militants in Gaza) should be to go in with a large military force,” the Israeli Ynet News Web site quoted him as saying.
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. One Hamas member originally scheduled for release was kept in detention. An Israeli prisons spokesman said prisoners from “various groups” were freed.