By Samuel Sockol and Linda Gradstein
Special to the Washington Post
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
RAMALLAH, West Bank, Aug. 25 -- Israel freed 198 Palestinian prisoners Monday, including the longest-serving Palestinian detainee in an Israeli jail, in a move Israeli officials said was meant to strengthen Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Thousands of flag-waving, cheering Palestinians greeted the detainees -- among the 8,500 Palestinians in Israeli jails -- as they arrived at Abbas's presidential compound here. Family members and friends surrounded each of the released prisoners, hugging and kissing them.
"We will not rest until all of the prisoners are released," Abbas told the crowd. "I will mention especially the brother Marwan Barghouti," he said, referring to a charismatic leader of Abbas's Fatah faction who was sentenced in 2004 to five life terms for involvement in attacks on Israelis.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said Barghouti's release "is not on the table."
But Monday's action showed a further eroding of Israel's long-standing policy to never set free prisoners with, in the words of Israeli officials, "blood on their hands."
Among those released was Said al-Ataba, 57, who was convicted of masterminding a 1977 bombing that killed an Israeli woman and wounded dozens of others.
In the recent prisoner exchange with Hezbollah, Israel freed Samir Kuntar, a Lebanese responsible for the deaths of a father, his young daughter and a policeman in 1979, in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers captured inside Israel's northern border two years ago.
"The prisoners' message is that they should not be forgotten," said Ataba, standing next to Abbas. "I will continue the struggle for our national goals, the establishment of a Palestinian state and the release of prisoners."
Israel has periodically released Palestinian prisoners, whose fate is among the most politically and emotionally compelling issues for the Palestinian public, to shore up Abbas's government. Abbas favors negotiations with Israel to create an independent Palestinian state, while the rival Hamas movement has advocated destruction of the Jewish state. The releases, although modest, are designed to show that Abbas's approach yields rewards.
"Releasing prisoners, especially those involved in terrorist attacks, is not simple," Regev said. "But we understand the importance of this to Palestinian society, and we hope to strengthen the moderate and pragmatic leadership."
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who arrived in Israel hours after the prisoner release, called it "a very good step and a sign of goodwill."
Israel also dismantled a large checkpoint south of Ramallah on Monday after removing two others in the West Bank in the past few days. Although hundreds of roadblocks and other barriers remain, a State Department official said thousands of Palestinians would now have greater freedom of movement.
Rice's brief visit -- it will last just over 24 hours -- is her seventh since the Annapolis peace conference last November. She arrives this time with Israel in the midst of political turbulence.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has announced that he will not run in party primaries next month as a series of corruption investigations against him unfolds, effectively ending his roughly 2 1/2 years in office.
"We continue to have the same goal, which is to reach agreement by the end of the year," Rice said. "There is a lot of work ahead to do that, and obviously, it's a complicated time. But, you know, it's always complicated out here."
One State Department official, who was not authorized to speak publicly to the news media, said he has urged Rice not to push too hard for an agreement in order to meet a deadline.
"Please do not repeat the errors of the past when you do a Hail Mary pass because you're deep in the fourth quarter and want to score," he said. "This is going to take devoted, sustained effort."