Israel released 255 Palestinian prisoners on Friday as part of a series of goodwill gestures designed to bolster Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in his standoff against Hamas.
The majority of the prisoners were aligned with Abbas’ Fatah faction.
Crowds of people gathered in the West Bank cheered as the buses rolled through the Beitunya checkpoint and into Palestinian Authority territory.
Some waved Palestinian flags and family photos, while the more daring jumped on the buses — some of them actually making it inside — to catch a glimpse of their loved ones.
The detainees were slated to meet with Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, and later with their families.
According to Israeli prison authority spokesman Ian Domnitz, before leaving the detainees were “identified, medically checked ” and “had interviews with the Red Cross” before boarding the buses.
None of the prisoners, according to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, have “blood on their hands.”
The majority of the inmates belong to Abbas’ Fatah faction, which is currently embroiled in a simmering power struggle with Hamas — an Islamic militant group that defeated the Fatah party in historic elections last year.
The remaining detainees are from smaller Palestinian parties. None are from Hamas.
Palestinian officials said they hoped Israel would release more prisoners soon, The Associated Press reported. Ziad Abu Ein, the Palestinian deputy minister of prisoner affairs, told the AP “this release breaks the ice between us and the Israelis on the issue of prisoners.”
Tensions have escalated in recent weeks following the Hamas takeover of Gaza and the subsequent collapse of the Hamas-Fatah unity government.
Given the power shift, Olmert has been working on several measures to help advance the endorsement of the new West Bank-based Palestinian emergency government. The prisoner release is one of those measures.
“I think the major pillar … between us and the Palestinians is building trust. Currently this trust was broken after many years,” Israeli diplomat Roey Gilad told CNN on Friday.
“For us Israelis, this is not a drop in the ocean, this is a significant move,” he said of the release. “Indeed, it’s a significant move, and I hope it will contribute for the future.”
The prisoner release issue has been a hot topic of debate.
Israeli critics argue the mass freeing will only lead to an increase in security problems, while on the Palestinian side critics argue the release of 256 is not enough, that there should be more set free.
“The difference between [these prisoners] and the prisoners with blood on their hands is only the fact that they’ve missed their targets,” Gilad said, underscoring the sacrifice Israel says it is making in pushing the process towards peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
There are approximately 11,000 Palestinians locked in Israeli jails.
“We try to strike a balance between keeping our security,” Gilad said. “We would not release those 256 prisoners had we didn’t think there was a process here that had to start somewhere.”
“Our parliament is active and always the opposition is not happy with such a process,” Gilad said. “Indeed a risk is involved, but this risk is worth a try. And we hope at the end of the day it will be more successful in the peace process.”
The prisoner release came a day after former British Prime Minister Tony Blair made his debut as special Middle East envoy amid hopes he can re-energize the peace process.
A meeting of the Middle East Quartet — the United States, United Nations, Russia and the European Union — was held Thursday to discuss ways to help support Abbas and create a “strong Palestinian partner,” U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said.
The talks came as Abbas seeks early elections that he hopes will bolster support for the government he installed after dissolving the previous Hamas-led leadership.
The 115-member Central Council of the Palestine Liberation Organization on Thursday backed Abbas’ proposal to hold early elections under new rules, though it remained unclear if the move was intended primarily to pressure Hamas, the AP reported.
In an attempt to isolate Hamas — which does not recognize Israel’s right to exist — the United States and EU restarted millions of dollars in aid to Abbas’ government that had been frozen after Hamas won last year’s parliamentary elections.
On Monday, President Bush called for an international conference on the Middle East this fall and announced the United States was contributing $190 million to help the Palestinian territories.