Israel had agreed to free about 440 prisoners, but the government has decided to delay the release of about 100 detainees who are being held for criminal charges. Palestinian leaders denounced the plan, saying Israel needed to release thousands of the 7,700 in its custody. Israel has said it will not release any Palestinian involved in the planning, support or execution of militant attacks.
A Palestinian taxi carried some of the released prisoners from Israel’s Erez checkpoint into the Gaza Strip, where they emerged and kissed the ground. Minutes later, several more prisoners were freed at Beitunya junction near Ramallah, and several busloads of detainees also arrived at Tarqumiya checkpoint in the southern West Bank.
Before their release, prisoners were required to sign a document pledging that they would “refrain from hostile activity” against Israel.
In Gaza, newly freed Hussein Abu Eid kissed and embraced his father for several minutes.
“I miss you my father. I wish my mother was still alive to see me and bring happiness to her heart,” said 32-year-old Abu Eid, according to the Associated Press. Abu Eid served 13 years of a 15-year sentence for membership in the militant group Islamic Jihad.
At Tarqumiya, prisoners leaned from windows and made victory signs and their relatives greeted them with whistles and cheers, the AP reported.
While the families of those released celebrated, the Palestinian government criticized Israeli action. Palestinian President Yasser Arafat called the release a “deceit,” referring to the fact that most of the prisoners to be freed had nearly completed their terms.
The Palestinian prisoners’ affairs ministry said there would be no official welcome for the inmates, as a protest of Israeli “deception.”
In a further response, Palestinians canceled a summit set for this week between Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and his Israeli counterpart Ariel Sharon.
Israel defended the decision to release 300 prisoners, saying they were trying to advance the peace process.
“Israel is making gestures and in response getting complaints,” said Gideon Meir, deputy director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
With the cancellation of the summit and tension rising, Palestinian legislator Saeb Erekat, a leading spokesman for the Palestinians, called for U.S. involvement to avert “the development of a major crisis.”
U.S. envoy John Wolf has been in the region since Friday, meeting with Israeli and Palestinian security officials.
The prisoner releases were not required under the internationally back peace plan, but have long been a major Palestinian demand. Almost daily, there are Palestinian demonstrations calling for prisoners’ freedom, and Prime Minister Abbas has repeatedly stressed the need for Israeli action.
Many of the inmates scheduled for release were arrested in sweeps for suspected militants. Nearly half had been held without trial. Charges they faced included stone-throwing, membership in militant organizations and possession of weapons and explosives.
Families of Israeli victims of Palestinian militant attacks appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court to block the release. The court rejected the request.