Israel freed 57 Palestinian militants, including a man who delivered cash sent by the late Saddam Hussein, from prison Monday in a gesture aimed at strengthening the moderate Palestinian leadership, which favors peace negotiations.
But the propaganda value of the move was diminished by Israeli gunfire that wounded a Palestinian teenager in a crowd awaiting freed inmates and by Israel’s decision to expand its presence in the West Bank by opening a new police headquarters.
Israel is holding talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his West Bank-based administration to prepare for a peace conference next month in the United States. The diplomatic effort is aimed largely at isolating Hamas, the Islamic movement that seized control of the Gaza Strip in June and refuses to renounce violence against Israel.
The prisoners freed Monday, who belong to Abbas’ Fatah movement and other secular factions, were serving sentences for militant activity against Israel that did not result directly in fatalities.
Bused from Ketziot prison in southern Israel and freed at an army checkpoint in the West Bank, the men kissed the asphalt before a crowd of flag- waving relatives and supporters.
Among them was Rakad Salim, 66, who had served five years of an eight-year sentence for distributing millions of dollars from the late Iraqi president to families of suicide bombers and other militants killed, wounded or imprisoned in the Palestinian uprising at the start of this decade.
Salim, secretary-general of the Arab Liberation Front, got a VIP escort from the checkpoint in a van with Abbas’ minister for prisoner affairs. Supporters met the van and paraded Salim around on their shoulders.
“I feel today that I was born again,” Salim said, beaming.
He added: “We hope this is the beginning of emptying all the [Israeli] prisons.”
Prisoner releases are hugely emotional for Palestinians, who for the most part regard their 11,000 compatriots held in Israeli jails as fighters against foreign occupation.
Israel has traditionally freed such prisoners on the eve of Ramadan, the monthlong Muslim fasting period that started more than two weeks ago. This time, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had to overcome objections within his Cabinet and then delayed the release because of rocket and mortar attacks on Israel from Gaza.
Some Cabinet ministers argued that Israel had gained nothing for its security in return for the release of 255 prisoners in a similar gesture in July.
The releases have been of limited value to Abbas, who called last week for an “overall solution to the prisoner issue.” Hamas spokesmen have dismissed the numbers as insignificant.
Hamas scored a small gain Sunday, when Egypt opened its border to let 80 stranded Palestinians, including Hamas members and militants from other factions wanted by Israel, cross into Gaza. The decision, a response to pressure by Hamas, was a surprise to Israel, which had counted on Egypt to support its policy of isolating Hamas by keeping the border closed.
Monday’s prisoner release was to include 87 Palestinians, but a bureaucratic hitch kept 30 behind bars. Those inmates, all from Gaza, needed a formal pardon from Israeli President Shimon Peres, who signed it late in the day. They are expected to go home today.
Word of the delay came after hundreds of Palestinians had gathered at the Erez border crossing between Israel and Gaza to wait for the prisoners. Israeli soldiers fired from watchtowers as the crowd surged toward a no-man’s zone, wounding a 14-year-old boy, witnesses said.
Meanwhile, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Israel was undermining the U.S.-sponsored peace conference by planning to open a police headquarters in a West Bank area east of Jerusalem known as E-1.
Israel’s public security minister, Avi Dichter, told the Haaretz newspaper that police officers would move to the new building by the end of this year.
Special correspondent Maher Abukhater at the Beitunia checkpoint in the West Bank contributed to this report.