Israel begins Palestinian prisoner release

July 21, 2007 - 0:0

KETZIOT, Israel (AFP) -- Israel was freeing more than 250 Palestinian prisoners on Friday in the largest release in recent years, making good on a pledge to president Mahmud Abbas in his standoff with radical Hamas.

The first armored buses filled with the male detainees pulled out of the Ketziot prison in southern Israel just before 0400 GMT. ""We have began to free 256 prisoners, including six women,"" Ian Domnitz, a spokesman for the prisons authority, told AFP on the scene as the buses pulled out under heavy guard. Getting onto the buses the men, all with fresh haircuts and carrying plastic bags with their belongings, flashed victory signs to the gathered journalists. ""We are very happy to be freed today,"" one said to AFP before getting onto the armored bus, its windows replaced by metal sheets. All of the prisoners will be transferred to the Beitunya checkpoint with the West Bank, from where they will travel to Ramallah to be greeted as heroes by Abbas and expected hundreds of well-wishers. The six women prisoners were being transferred to Beitunya from the Hasharon prison in Tel Aviv. Israel agreed to release the 256 as part of a series of goodwill gestures designed to bolster Abbas in his struggle for power with the Islamist Hamas, following the group's bloody takeover of the Gaza Strip. The prisoners include 11 minors and are for the most part members of Abbas's Fatah party. None of them have ""blood on their hands,"" meaning involvement in attacks that have killed Israelis, and all had to sign a ""commitment not to be involved in terror"" prior to their release. The most high-profile prisoner is Abdelrahim Malluh, the 60-year-old deputy leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). He was arrested in 2002 and sentenced two years later to nine years in jail for belonging to a terror group. The prisoner serving the longest sentence is Muhannad Jaradat, detained in 1989 and sentenced to 20 years. His sentence was due to end in September 2009. While welcoming the release, the Palestinians have said that freeing 250 prisoners out of the more than 11,000 held in Israeli jails, the majority of them on security charges, was not enough. Other recent Israeli gestures to Abbas have included a pledge to remove from wanted lists nearly 190 militants who had promised not to carry out attacks against Israel, and releasing a part of Palestinian customs duties it has withheld for more than a year after Hamas came to power. Since Hamas routed forces loyal to Abbas from Gaza on June 15 after fighting that left more than 100 people dead, the Palestinians have been split into two entities, with the moderate president controlling the West Bank and Hamas ruling over Gaza. The last major prisoner release by Israel came in 2005, when it freed 500 in February and another 400 in June, in another bid to bolster Abbas. The one before that came in January 2004 during an exchange with Lebanon's Hezbollah militia, when it released 400 Palestinians and some 30 other Arabs in exchange for an Israeli businessman and remains of three soldiers