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Release of Prisoners Earns Israel Criticism, Little Apparent Goodwill

August 7, 2003
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A release of prisoners that Israel intended as a goodwill gesture toward the Palestinians appears to have earned little goodwill.

A group of 334 security prisoners were released on Wednesday, several weeks after an initial group of about 200 were freed. Another 99 are scheduled to be released next week.

However, the Palestinian Authority limited acts of rejoicing to protest the "the insufficient number of released prisoners."

Palestinian spokesmen echoed the criticism from P.A. President Yasser Arafat, who called the release an Israeli "propaganda measure."

Israel came under intense Palestinian and American pressure to release prisoners. Though the release is not part of the "road map" peace plan, Palestinian terrorist groups made the release a condition of their unilateral cease-fire, and the United States urged Israel to free a sizable number of prisoners in the belief that it would strengthen P.A. Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

Israeli officials debated the issue for weeks, ultimately deciding to release several hundred members of terrorist groups but not those directly involved in attacks that killed Israelis.

As has been the pattern with Israel’s releases of prisoners since the Oslo peace process first began in 1993, what was intended as a step to elicit Palestinian goodwill appeared to generate more animosity.

"We hope this is a trust-building move that will help promote the peace process," said Arnon Perlman, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

But P.A. Cabinet minister Yasser Abed Rabbo did not appear to be impressed.

"It is worthless and meaningless," Abed Rabbo said. "It is a theatrical step to appease Washington."

"If Israel intended the release of Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill measure, the result was just the opposite," Palestinian parliamentary deputy Kadura Fares told Israeli television, according to the Ha’aretz newspaper.

To protest the list of prisoners to be released, Abbas canceled a meeting with Sharon planned for Wednesday.

Buses carrying prisoners left detention centers in the south and north of the country. Relatives waited to greet them at four checkpoints in the West Bank and one in the Gaza Strip, settling for hugs and kisses instead of the traditional nationalist songs.

Samir, a man who served 20 months at the Ketziot detention camp in the Negev, said that he was happy to be out but that he and his friends demanded the release of all the estimated 5,800 Palestinian security prisoners.

As a condition of his release, Samir said he had signed a document promising not to engage in terrorism.

However, attacks against Israelis are "fighting occupation," not terrorism, he said.

Another prisoner, Hamad al-Smairi, also said he would not abide by his promise of non-violence.

"I am a soldier of the Islamic Jihad and I will do whatever and be whatever the Islamic Jihad wishes," he said after arriving in the Gaza Strip, according to Ha’aretz.

Not all were so uncompromising, however.

"I will go back to university to study. I did enough as a militant," said Islamic Jihad member Amar Jaradat, 27. "I did my duty and now I have to look after myself and study law."

The Palestinian deputy minister for prisoner affairs, Ziad Abu Ein, said that the Palestinian Authority intends to help the prisoners acclimate to civilian life by providing them with a monthly stipend and jobs in the Authority, the Jerusalem Post reported.

Abu Ein, who served prison time himself for sheltering Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti in his home last April, said that all the families of the Palestinian prisoners received a monthly stipend of about $300 during the course of their incarceration, the report said.

A group of bereaved families, Israelis and Palestinians, demonstrated at a checkpoint near Tulkarm in favor of the release.

"The infrastructure of terrorism is the womb of the Palestinian woman, who will never agree to give birth to a child who will be submissive and will want to live under occupation," said Ronni Hirschensohn, an Israeli who lost a son in a 1995 terrorist bombing. "One should start listening to the other side."

At a checkpoint near Ramallah, bereaved families from the other side of the political spectrum demonstrated against the release.

Yehudit Dasberg, who lost her daughter and son-in-law in a terrorist attack seven years ago, said this was a day for "crying for generations."

No sovereign country releases its outlaws and potential killers, and Israel’s action proves that it has capitulated to terrorism, she said.

"Since when has it been our interest to strengthen Abu Mazen?" Dasberg asked, using Abbas’ nom de guerre.

One of the demonstrators was Dov Kalmanovitz, the first victim of the first intifada that began in 1987, who was badly burned in a terrorist attack near one of the checkpoints where the prisoners crossed over to P.A. areas.

A number of Kach activists tried to force their way into the Ofer Camp where prisoners were released. Police detained one of the activists, Itamar Ben-Gvir.

The Palestinians complained that many of the freed prisoners were scheduled to be released anyway within a few days.

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