Israelis Free 199 Palestinians
RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) _ Just past daybreak Thursday, the Israeli prison gates swung open and eight buses carrying 199 handcuffed Palestinian security prisoners drove out under police escort.
By breakfast time, the inmates were home in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, their first moments of freedom sweetened by gun salutes, bagpipe serenades and hugs and kisses from relatives weeping with joy.
The release got the new Israeli-Palestinian peace deal off to a smooth start and paves the way for the next step, an Israeli transfer of 7 percent of the West Bank, or 160 square miles, to Palestinian civilian rule by the weekend.
On Thursday evening, Israel was to hand Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat the maps outlining the transfer of the land to Palestinian civil control. Senior Palestinian and Israeli officials had already reviewed and approved the maps.
The handover is to be completed before Monday’s festive launch of talks on a historic final peace accord that aims to end decades of hostility and bloodshed. The talks will address sensitive issues, including the borders and nature of the Palestinian entity and the future of Jewish settlements.
The prisoner releases began just after dawn Thursday when the buses rolled out of two Israeli jails. Still cuffed with black plastic ropes, some of the prisoners raised their hand in triumph and flashed victory signs. Others chanted ``God is great″ and sang the Palestinian anthem ``My Homeland.″
At drop-off points in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, they were met by thousands of Palestinians, many weeping or ululating. One man fainted after hugging his brother for the first time in many years. Bagpipe bands played and Palestinian policemen fired shots in the air in a traditional expression of joy.
The happiness was tinged with frustration over Israel’s refusal to release hundreds of other prisoners, including members of Islamic militant groups and those convicted of killing Israelis in terrorist attacks. Most of those freed Thursday had served time for killing suspected Palestinians collaborators with Israel or for injuring Israelis.
Top Israeli negotiator Gilead Sher told Israel television that the government reserved the right to select the prisoners it released. Asked if he anticipated the release of Islamic militants any time soon, he said, ``Absolutely not.″
Jamal Imtur got a hero’s welcome in Hebron, where Palestinian police outfitted him with a submachine gun and led a 50-car convoy to his village 20 minutes away. He had served 14 years of a life sentence for what he said were ``military activities″ _ often a euphemism for killing collaborators.
He headed straight for the local cemetery and read a prayer from the Koran for Palestinians killed by Israelis.
``This is what I dreamed, to see my son before I die,″ said his ecstatic father, Mohammed.
In the West Bank village of Beituniya, a small group of Israelis protested the releases.
Meir Indor engaged in a shouting match with a middle-aged Palestinian man, Ahed Hussein, who awaited the release of his son.
Indor pointed to his facial scar from a hand grenade, a reminder of his service in an anti-terror unit in the 1970s.
``You know what this is, this is from your hand!″ he shouted.
Not to be outdone, Hussein pulled up the leg of his pants and showed Indor where he was shot twice in the shin by Israeli soldiers during a protest march against Israeli occupation. ``And look at this! This is from you!″
The argument illustrated how difficult it is for Israelis and Palestinians to forgive each other and why prisoner releases remain an emotional issue for both.
The top Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, appeared on the same Israeli TV program as Sher, and appealed to both sides to understand the other’s concerns.
``Each side that wants peace must understand the feelings of the other,″ said Erekat.
The prisoners freed included those who killed Palestinian collaborators with Israel _ outraging the collaborators, who said the releases cheapened their lives.
``There are 17,000 families of collaborators who see themselves as betrayed,″ said Rami Barhom, a former collaborator, appearing on Israel television.
Also appearing in a live feed from Gaza was Jaber Wishah, a Palestinian released Thursday. He said he once killed a collaborator _ a ``traitor″ _ with pride.
``Very nice,″ Barhom interjected. Noting that Arafat negotiated a peace with Israel, Barhom asked: ``Is Arafat a traitor?″
Wishah exploded in anger. ``Chutzpah!″ he said. ``Chutzpah, a question like that from someone like you!″