More than 250 Palestinians released from Israeli prisons have received a rapturous welcome from relatives and friends in Ramallah, on the West Bank. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called them “heroes of freedom”.
Israel agreed to the releases as a gesture of support to Mr Abbas whose Fatah faction is locked in a bitter power struggle with its Hamas rivals.
None of the freed prisoners is from Hamas, which took over the Gaza Strip from Fatah in deadly fighting in June.
Many Palestinians are saying that freeing only 256 Palestinian prisoners out of some 10,000 is not enough, says the BBC’s Ali Maqbool in Ramallah.
“I thank God that we are honoured by the return of heroes of freedom to their home and the bosom of their homeland,” said Mr Abbas to the freed Palestinians and hundreds of their family and friends.
He said he would work for the release of the other prisoners still held in Israeli jails.
The freed Palestinians were taken from prisons in Israel to a checkpoint outside Ramallah.
Many kissed the ground before boarding Palestinian coaches for the journey into Ramallah for their reception at Mr Abbas’s presidential compound.
As the coaches arrived at Mr Abbas’s compound they were greeted by a euphoric crowd, many waving Palestinian flags.
“I only have three words to say: freedom, freedom, freedom,” said Abdel Rahim Malluh, deputy leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the most well-known of the released prisoners.
While the release of the prisoners is welcome news for Palestinians, says the BBC’s Middle East analyst Roger Hardy, many note that the Israelis have been very selective.
They are for the most part low-security prisoners who have already served most of their sentences.
None of them is considered by Israel to have “blood on their hands” – to have been directly involved in attacks that wounded or killed Israelis.
‘Policy of division’
The prisoner release was approved two weeks ago by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s cabinet.
Israel hopes to boost support for Mr Abbas whose emergency government based in the West Bank excludes the radicals of Hamas.
“We’re hopeful that the combined steps by the Israeli government and the Palestinian government can bring about a new period of co-operation and dialogue,” said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev.
Hamas says the release of Fatah-affiliated prisoners reinforces Mr Abbas’s policy to deepen the divide between his organisation and Hamas.
The last time Israel freed a significant number of Palestinian prisoners was in 2005, when almost 400 were released as part of a ceasefire deal.