After more than a year of delays, Israel on Tuesday began freeing its female Palestinian prisoners, fulfilling a commitment made in the interim peace agreement signed in 1995.
But there were hitches until the end, with last-minute legal appeals and emotion-charged pleas from Israelis seeking to block the official pardons and freedom for the 31 women, several of whom were involved in killings of Jews.
Late Tuesday night, the Israeli Supreme Court denied a final petition to stop the release, clearing the way for the women to leave the prisons where they have been held and to make their way to this West Bank city for reunions with relatives and a welcome from Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.
Waving and making victory gestures from the windows of their bus, the women arrived just before 2 a.m. in Ramallah, where they were greeted by an ecstatic crowd of about 200 before being whisked inside.
After the recent accord on Israel’s withdrawal of troops from the West Bank city of Hebron, the release marked the second time that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has honored agreements made with the Palestinians by his Labor Party predecessors.
Arafat said the decision to free the women signaled that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was back on track. “No doubt this will help the relationship between the two peoples,” he said.
But the issue, replete with anger and grief on one side and joy on the other, served to highlight the vastly different perceptions the two sides hold of their shared history.
Israelis view the women as violent, if politically motivated, criminals who have demonstrated a willingness to attack Israelis and are likely to try again. Palestinians see them as having been political prisoners, soldiers in the battle for a homeland who should have been freed at the war’s end.
Outside the Ramallah headquarters, relatives waiting in the cold for the women’s arrival spoke with pride of the incidents that led to their own daughter’s or sister’s arrest. The women’s actions had helped push Israel toward peace, the relatives said.
Nariman Manasrah, now 20, stabbed an Israeli soldier near Jerusalem’s Old City in 1993, little more than a year after she carried out another, similar attack, her father said. “She stabbed the soldiers to return our homeland and return our land,” he said. “It was the right path.”
Lamia Maarouf, who served 12 years of a life sentence for involvement in the kidnapping and slaying of an Israeli soldier, was released first but was taken directly to Ben-Gurion Airport. She was to be deported to Brazil, where she is a citizen.
But Maarouf’s mother-in-law, Zarifi Hassan Abdullah, spoke proudly of the 1984 operation in which both her son, Towfik Abdullah, and Lamia participated. Such attacks strengthen Fatah, the largest faction in Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, and help the Palestinians make progress toward the creation of an independent state, Abdullah said.
“Do you think he did it just for me?” the tiny woman added, in reference to her son, as the crowd around her broke into laughter.
But even as the Palestinians prepared to celebrate, protesters gathered outside Sharon Prison in central Israel and near the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem.
In Beit El, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, friends and family members of Zvi Klein, killed by one of the women freed Tuesday, dedicated a small public garden to his memory.
Klein’s widow, Ora, told Israeli television news that she was disappointed and upset at the pardon granted Abir Wouhadi, convicted of heading the Fatah squad that killed her husband.
“I feel very bad, but I am helpless,” Klein said.
Other Israelis reserved their criticism for Arafat, saying it was inappropriate for him to fete women who killed Israelis.
Under the interim peace accord signed in September 1995, all female Palestinian prisoners were to be released almost immediately, along with men who had completed two-thirds of their sentences and prisoners who were young, old or ill. But Israeli President Ezer Weizman, a former army commander who seems to relish playing an activist role in his largely ceremonial post, refused that October to pardon two of the women, saying they had “blood on their hands.”
A West Bank military commander followed suit, denying release to two others. Virtually all of the women then rejected freedom, choosing to stay in prison with those denied release.
Weizman remains opposed to the prisoner release, Batya Keinar, his spokeswoman, said Tuesday. But six months ago, on the advice of two former justice ministers, he quietly signed orders pardoning most of the women.
“The case here is not . . . of normal amnesty but of release in the framework of an agreement,” the 1993 and 1995 Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians, Keinar said.
The issue of the prisoners, male and female, became a top priority for Palestinians in the protracted negotiations leading to the Hebron accord in January. About 3,000 Palestinian men remain in Israeli jails.
Still, the prime minister, clearly aware of the issue’s sensitivity for many Israelis, especially his own right-wing supporters, took pains to stress that he was fulfilling a commitment made by the previous government and that he intends to push the Palestinians to carry out their own obligations under the peace agreements. Israel has insisted, among other demands, that the Palestinians keep promises to cease political activity in Jerusalem.
Even as the peace process with the Palestinians appeared to be making at least fitful progress, there was violence Tuesday on Israel’s only remaining front: Israeli fighter planes raided Lebanese and Palestinian guerrilla targets in southern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley and the hills south of Beirut, an army spokesman said.
The attacks came two days after seven Israeli soldiers were wounded in clashes with Hezbollah fighters inside the border strip Israel occupies in southern Lebanon.
Muhammed El-Hasan of The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.