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Israelis Release 434 Prisoners, but Deny a Political Motivation

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Israel released 434 Palestinians from prison Wednesday, but Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin denied that the move was connected in any way with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s meetings in Washington with Bush administration officials.

The release was officially billed as a goodwill gesture on the eve of Ramadan, the Moslem month of fasting that begins Thursday.

Col. Raanan Gissin, of the army spokesman’s office, also denied any link between the release and the Shamir visit to the United States. He said the release would have taken place even if there were no Shamir visit.

The army released 224 prisoners from the Gaza Strip and 210 from West Bank prisons. Most of the freed prisoners were held for their involvement in anti-Israel activities, including stone-throwing and firebomb attacks.

Many were held under administrative arrest orders for periods of up to six months, without any charges pressed against them. Several were due to be released within a matter of days.

During a tour in the Golan Heights on Tuesday, Rabin told reporters that the release is a gesture of good will toward the Palestinians on the eve of Ramadan. He said the release indicates to the residents of the territories the value of keeping law and order.

The massive release of prisoners came under immediate attack by the political right. Gush Emunim, the militant settlers’ movement, published a statement Wednesday criticizing the release as an “irresponsible” act.

Knesset member Rehavam Ze’evi of Moledet asked how many Jewish children would have to die to realize that this was a mistake.

Similar complaints had been voiced in May 1985, when Israel released 1,100 convicted terrorists in return for the release of three Israelis captured during the Lebanon War by Ahmed Jabril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.

Wednesday’s prisoners were driven by buses from the various detention camps to their home towns. As they descended from buses, soldiers untied the plastic handcuffs that bound their wrists.

Just before the prisoners boarded the buses, they were summoned to meet with officers of the civil administration, who stressed the humane aspects of the release and urged the freed prisoners to abide by the law, so that they will not be returned to jail.

The released prisoners made no commitments. Many chanted “Allah ahkbar” (God is great), and told reporters that the release would not slow down the uprising.

Army officers said that the massive release of prisoners was part of a series of conciliatory gestures, including the easing of curfews, reopening mosques that had been closed in Gaza, and reopening houses that had been sealed off as a punitive measure.

In the Dehaishe refugee camp, near Bethlehem, youths launched a stone-throwing demonstration Wednesday, as seven of the camp residents came home from jail.

Some 6,200 prisoners are still in Israeli jails, most detained for their involvement in anti-Israeli activities during the 16-month-old uprising.

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