Israel began to free more than 400 Palestinian prisoners early Monday, the latest release aimed at boosting president Mahmud Abbas amid revived peace efforts.
|Palestinians hold pictures of prisoners held in Israeli jails during a protest calling for their release inside the Red Cross office in Gaza City, November 2007 (Photo: AFP)|
The first buses with the prisoners rolled out of the inner courtyard of the Ketziot prison in Israel's southern Negev desert shortly after 0400 GMT as dawn broke, according to an AFP reporter on the scene.
"Today we are releasing 429 prisoners," Yaron Zamir, a spokesman for the Israeli prison authority, told AFP.
He said 20 of the freed detainees would return to their homes in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, with the rest going to the occupied West Bank.
Smiling, many of the detainees joked with the prison guards as they underwent their final checks before being handcuffed and placed on the buses in the early morning chill.
Some held plastic bags with their personal belongings, others clutched prayer rugs. Unlike previous releases, when the prisoners were driven home to the Palestinian territories in windowless busses, this time they were placed in vehicles normally used for tour groups.
As in previous releases, none of those freed on Monday were implicated in attacks that killed Israelis.
Monday's release was originally slated to occur days ahead of a Middle East peace conference that took place in the US city of Annapolis on November 27, but was delayed due to unspecified reasons.
The Israeli cabinet approved the release ahead of the US conference as a goodwill gesture to Abbas. But the release fell short of the Palestinian request that Israel free 2,000 prisoners -- out of the more than 11,000 that it currently detains -- ahead of the summit.
Israel freed more than 80 prisoners in early October and more than 250 in July, gestures aimed at boosting Abbas after the Islamist Hamas seized power in the Gaza Strip in mid-June by routing forces loyal to the moderate president.
The Hamas takeover split the Palestinians into two separate entities, with the Islamists running the Gaza Strip -- the smaller half of the Palestinians' future state -- and Abbas retaining control of the West Bank.
Since the rout, Israel has sought to boost Abbas and isolate Hamas, a group pledged to the destruction of the Jewish state.
At the Annapolis conference, Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert formally relaunched peace talks after a seven-year freeze, saying negotiators would aim to reach a comprehensive peace deal by the end of 2008.
Both leaders, however, face formidable internal obstacles, which observers warn may derail the tortuous Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts once again.
Abbas's writ has been effectively limited to the West Bank since Hamas' takeover of Gaza, and Olmert presides over a coalition whose members have threatened to leave the cabinet if he makes concessions to the Palestinians on core issues.