RAMALLAH, West Bank, (Reuters) – Israel released 224 prisoners in a goodwill gesture to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday, prompting joyous family reunions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Families sang and danced as prison buses rolled up full of newly freed men, shouting and waving from the windows, and mothers wept as they embraced their children.
Abbas greeted them individually with kisses on the cheeks at his office in Ramallah, the seat of his government.
“My son was jailed a week after his marriage. We are very happy to see him out, and we hope all the prisoners will soon be free so all families will be happy,” said the mother of Abed Rahman Mustafa, who had been behind bars for 18 months.
Israel said the prisoner release was aimed at advancing peace talks. “We hope these releases will be seen as an important confidence-building measure designed to strengthen the trust and the confidence in the (peace) negotiations,” said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
The number freed on Monday was a fraction of the 11,000 Palestinians Israel holds. Most came from the Ofer Prison in the Israeli-occupied West Bank where Abbas’s government is based.
Aides to Olmert said the prisoners came from the ranks of Abbas’s Fatah faction, but not from its hardline Islamist rivals, Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.
U.S.-sponsored peace talks between Olmert and Abbas, which are rejected by Hamas, have shown little sign of progress.
Israel has released some 1,000 Palestinian prisoners since last year, including 200 in August, Regev said. He did not say how many more have been arrested in that same time frame.
A group of 18 was taken by bus from a prison in the southern Israeli town of Ashkelon to Gaza, controlled by Hamas since June 2007 when they drove Abbas’s Fatah loyalists out of the narrow coastal territory. “My happiness cannot be described. My happiness is like nothing else in the world. I cannot talk, I cannot talk,” said the mother of Fatah member Mohammed Abdu, who served 7 years of a 13-year sentence.
Friends and relatives hoisted him on their shoulders as families embraced on the Gaza side of Israel’s Erez checkpoint which controls access to the blockaded strip. They draped a black-and-white checked keffiya headdress over his shoulders.
Israel aims to reward Fatah and bolster the popularity of Abbas who is seeking peace with the Jewish state and creation of a Palestinian state alongside it, while punishing Hamas as long as it sticks to armed resistance and rejection of Israel.
The Israelis “should not be discriminating” between Fatah and Hamas, Abdu’s mother said. “They should all be released.”