Israel Frees Longest-held Prisoner in Goodwill Gesture to Palestinians

In an effort to build confidence among Palestinians for the implementation of the self-rule accord signed last month in Washington, Israel has released its longest-held Palestinian prisoner.

Twenty-three years after Salim al-Zeri entered the gates of an Israeli jail, he was set free Tuesday to the cheers of hundreds of Palestinians who had turned out to greet him.

Zeri, 50, had been a commander in Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat’s Al Fatah movement. He was jailed in 1970 after he attempted to infiltrate Israel with a terrorist unit from the sea. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.

The release came as Israel and the PLO were scheduled to resume their negotiations in the Sinai border town of Taba over the implementation of the self-rule accord.

There are an estimated 11,000 Palestinian detainees and prisoners in Israeli jails.

The PLO has demanded that all the prisoners be released as part of the accord, but Israeli officials insist that prisoners convicted of murdering Israelis will not be released.

Yet Israel is preparing a massive release of other prisoners — including administrative detainees, women and minors as well as the elderly and sick — to demonstrate some immediate positive results from the self-rule accord.

It is believed that, as a first step, Israel will release some 4,000 prisoners who have been sentenced up to five years in jail.

CRITICISM FROM LIKUD

But Israeli sources stressed Tuesday that the criteria by which Palestinian prisoners would be released — and consequently their total number — would be negotiated in Taba.

In the 1960s, Zeri was involved in a number of terrorist attacks against Israel Defense Force targets in the Gaza region, but no Israeli soldiers were hurt as a result of his actions.

Although he had murdered an Arab who had been suspected of collaborating with the Israeli authorities, the act was not considered grounds for his continued imprisonment.

A government spokesman said Tuesday that since no terrorist attacks had been perpetrated by the PLO since the signing of the accord, there was “no reason not to release Zeri after 23 years in prison.”

The plan for a massive release of Palestinian prisoners was sharply criticized this week by the Likud Knesset faction.

The Likud claimed that the release of security prisoners was an “irresponsible act which endangers the personal security of Israel’s citizens.”

But Ahmed Tibi, an Israeli Arab who is an adviser to Arafat, said it was time to forget the horrors of the past and to work together for a better future.

“I understand the sensitivity of the public in Israel,” said Tibi, “but a new leaf has been turned.”

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