Israel frees 26 Palestinian prisoners; Abbas wants more
The (Hamburg, Germany) Deutsche Presse-Agentur
RAMALLAH, — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he would not sign any peace deal with Israel "so long as there is one prisoner behind bars," after Israel freed 26 Palestinian militants.
Israel released 20 prisoners to the West Bank, five to Gaza and one to East Jerusalem early Wednesday, as part of recently revived Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
"We welcome our brothers, the heroes, coming from behind the bars to the world of freedom," he said, as the 20 released to the West Bank joined him on a stage at his presidential headquarters in the central West Bank city of Ramallah.
Several thousands of dancing, singing and flag-waving relatives and supporters greeted the prisoners at the compound, where the 20 lined up to kiss and shake hands with Abbas. They then climbed onto the stage, waving and flashing victory signs to loud whistling by the crowd.
The actual cross-over into Palestinian-controlled territory took place after midnight, after Israel's supreme court rejected a petition against the release filed by an organization representing the Israeli victims of Palestinian attacks.
The Israel Prison Service transported the prisoners in vehicles which had their windows sealed, to avoid images of them flashing V-victory signs, which had angered many Israelis during past releases.
For Palestinians they are national heroes, but Israelis regard them as murderers. All 26 were convicted of shooting, stabbing, axing or strangling to death Israelis in the 1980s and 1990s.
Dozens of Israelis protested outside the Ofer military base, including the relatives of an Israeli extremist, Ami Popper, who is serving a life sentence for shooting dead seven Palestinian workers in 1990.
In order to get clemency, "it turns out, your name has to be Mohammed or Yousouf," said his brother, Zvika Popper.
"Bibi (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) releases terrorists. Way to go Bibi," said another protester, who burned a Keffiyeh, or traditional Arab headdress.
Not far from there, hundreds of Palestinian relatives waited on the Palestinian side of the Beitunia military checkpoint south of Ramallah for the prisoners to cross into freedom.
"I have mixed feelings, feelings of joy and apprehension. It's a moment we have been waiting for many years," said Suleiman Turkman, the brother of Mohammed Turkman, one of three Palestinians who killed an Israeli near the northern West Bank city of Jenin in 1992.
"These long years of going to the prison to see him are now over. He will be with us at home. We don't have to see him through glass barriers," he added.
The release of 26 militants is part of the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations revived in July after years of stalemate.
As part of the talks, Netanyahu promised to release 104 Palestinian militants held since before the 1993 Oslo interim peace accords, in four stages.
The release is being billed as an achievement for Abbas, whose hardline rivals charge he got nothing out of negotiating with Israel. Hamas, the radical Islamist movement ruling Gaza, achieved the release of a larger number of prisoners - 1,027 - in 2011, by attacking an Israeli military base outside Gaza and abducting an Israeli soldier, held hostage for more than five years as a bargaining chip.
Under the current arrangements, the first 26 prisoners were released in August. A third batch is scheduled to be freed in December and a fourth in March.
"We will not be satisfied until everyone is out of prison," said Abbas.
"Today is the second joyous day. In two months, it will be the third, and then the fourth - and then the fifth until we clean out all the prisons."
Almost 5,000 Palestinians remain in Israeli prisons for security-related offenses.