KETZIOT, Israel (AFP) – Israel released dozens of Palestinian prisoners on Monday after an hours-long delay, as a Ramadan goodwill gesture to president Mahmud Abbas and ahead of a US-sponsored peace conference.
Two windowless armoured buses carrying 57 detainees left the Ketziot prison in southern Israel around 0930 GMT under a heavy security escort and headed to the Beitunya checkpoint in the occupied West Bank.
A third bus that was supposed to carry 29 prisoners to the Erez crossing with the Gaza Strip — under the rule of the Islamist Hamas movement since mid-June — remained inside the prison for the time being.
It was not immediately clear whether the Gazans would be freed as planned later in the day.
Originally 87 men, two minors among them and mostly from Abbas’s secular Fatah party — out of the more than 11,000 currently held by Israel — were due to be freed.
But at the last moment one of the West Bankers was held back after it was discovered that in prison he changed affiliation from Fatah to Hamas, which Israel brands a terror group, a senior security official told AFP.
The prisoners were originally due to drive out from the prison shortly after sunrise, but when the detainees had undergone their final checks and were placed in handcuffs onto the vehicles, authorities suddenly announced a delay.
The detainees, who had been singing inside the buses in anticipation of their freedom and reunions with their loved ones, were taken off the vehicles and put back into cells inside the prison.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office said the delay was due to “technical reasons,” while a senior security source said it was a “bureaucratic error.”
The Israeli cabinet approved the release a week ago after assurances given by Olmert to Abbas during their regular talks ahead of a US-sponsored international peace conference expected in November.
Israel has been aiming to boost Abbas in his powerbase in the West Bank ever since Islamist Hamas seized control of Gaza by routing forces loyal to the moderate president.
Palestinians welcomed the release when it was first announced, but said that Israel must do more to support Abbas, particularly lifting the more than 500 roadblocks in the West Bank that severely constrain freedom of movement in the territory and feed resentment.
The vast majority of those to be released on Monday are from Abbas’s secular Fatah party, with the rest members of the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP).
All of the detainees were convicted of security offences, none of them have “blood on their hands” — involvement in attacks that have killed Israelis — and all have at least one year left to serve on their sentences, officials said.
The last time Israel carried out a major prisoner release was in July, when it freed more than 250 Palestinians in a bid to bolster Abbas in the aftermath of the bloody takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas the previous month.