Israel Releases 255 Palestinian Prisoners
Move Is Intended to Boost Popularity of Fatah's Abbas

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 21, 2007

BEITUNIYA, West Bank, July 20 -- Israeli police arrested Faten Daraghmeh four years ago in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel. The mother of seven children wore a vest packed with explosives, and she later informed her family that she had planned to blow herself up inside a crowded shopping mall. Instead she went to jail.

Now she is home. Daraghmeh and 254 other Palestinian prisoners walked out of their cells Friday and crossed into the West Bank here just before noon in an ecstatic eight-bus convoy -- Palestinian flags, Fatah party banners, and smiling faces poking out from open windows.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed to release the prisoners, less than 3 percent of an estimated 10,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails, to boost the popularity of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party at a pivotal moment in its political standoff with the rival Hamas movement.

But the first mass prisoner release in more than two years could harden the partisan divide between the armed Islamic movement and Fatah, a secular party that has the backing of the Bush administration.

None of those freed Friday were from Hamas, Israeli and Hamas officials confirmed, although a few were members of Palestinian factions other than Fatah. The vast majority belonged to Abbas's party, including Daraghmeh, who frantically waved a poster with the president's picture as her women-only bus passed through this crossing north of Jerusalem.

Three of her daughters waited with the chanting throngs for their mother, who had served just over half her sentence. As she appeared in the window, the crowd lifted up Noura, a 4-year-old in an embroidered tunic, and Shuruq, a 5-year-old in a frilly white party dress, to ride with their mother before the bus zipped toward Abbas's presidential compound for a partisan celebration.

"I'm thanking Abu Mazen very much," Daraghmeh, in her 30s, called from the window, referring to Abbas by his nickname.

Prisoners are venerated for their sacrifice in Palestinian society, and the issue is among the most emotionally resonant in the long conflict with Israel. This prisoner release, highly unpopular among Olmert's hawkish coalition partners, comes as pressure mounts on Israel from the Bush administration, Egypt and Jordan to do more to improve Fatah's standing in the West Bank.

Last month, Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip, sealing the political division of the two territories envisioned as the main components of a future Palestinian state.

Abbas immediately fired the Hamas-led unity government and appointed an emergency cabinet that now holds sway in the West Bank. But its political legitimacy has been challenged by Hamas and others because it continues operating without approval from the Hamas-dominated parliament. The Islamic movement won 2006 elections that were championed by the Bush administration.

After the emergency government's 30-day mandate expired last week, Abbas reappointed independent lawmaker Salam Fayyad as prime minister and made minor changes to the cabinet before installing it again. He has pledged to call early presidential and parliamentary elections, which his Fatah movement, struggling to rehabilitate its political image after years of corrupt, hapless rule, is by no means assured of winning.

Hamas, meanwhile, is running a parallel government in Gaza, where an already impoverished economy is nearing collapse because Israel has closed cargo crossings to all but emergency aid.

Fatah's support is hardly universal, even in the West Bank. "We hope that what happened in Gaza happens here in the West Bank," said Mahmoud Daraghmeh, Faten's older brother, who sells vegetables in their village near Nablus. "We want Fatah gone altogether. With Fatah, it's all lies."

Israel freed 898 Palestinian prisoners in two phases during the first six months of 2005. At the time, Abbas, newly elected as president, had successfully brokered a cease-fire with Israel among most of the armed Palestinian factions, including Hamas.

Israeli officials said that release was designed to strengthen Abbas, but in elections eight months later Hamas prevailed. Now, Olmert is pursuing a similar strategy, which includes transferring some frozen Palestinian tax revenue and granting a three-month trial amnesty to nearly 200 wanted Fatah gunmen in the West Bank.

In recent days, scores of Fatah activists and gunmen from its armed wing, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, have emerged from hiding. Many are sleeping at night for the first time in years, adjusting to a life outside of self-imposed confinement to avoid Israeli capture.

"I didn't see the sunshine, I didn't know if it was raining," said Amjad Kharawi, a 35-year-old Fatah activist, who turned himself in to the Palestinian Preventive Security headquarters in Bethlehem this week after five years in hiding. "I missed meat, all kinds of food, and coffee."

A scraggly beard reaching to his chest and his hair falling past his shoulders, Kharawi became a fugitive in April 2002 when Israeli forces arrived at his home in the Deheishe refugee camp near Bethlehem looking for him. He said he is not a member of Fatah's armed wing and intends now to join the Palestinian security services and marry his fiancee, whom he has not seen since he went into hiding.

"Israel has always been responsible for weakening Abu Mazen," Kharawi said. "What I know is that he is my president, though, and I will abide by the decisions he makes."

Among those released Friday was Abdel Rahim Malouh, the second-ranking official of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Abbas often works with the party, a Marxist movement with a small presence in parliament. Red banners bobbed above the crowd, and a number of the party's young activists danced and chanted while waiting for the buses to arrive.

Most of those gathered wore the black-and-white checked scarves of Fatah, including 25-year-old Suha Mousa, who awaited her brother. Murad Mousa, who was a student at al-Quds Open University at the time of his arrest for participating in stone-throwing demonstrations, served more than half of his nine-year sentence.

"We couldn't sleep we were so excited after we heard he would be released," she said. "But it is a time of mixed feelings. We are happy about my brother, but there are many others still in there."

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