Israel has released 26 Palestinian prisoners as part of the deal with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah to return to negotiations. The men have been serving various sentences and their release is the third of four phases to the overall agreement. All were arrested by the Israelis before the Oslo Accords were signed; they were members of different national and Islamic factions. Three of the men set free are from the Gaza Strip, with the rest coming from the West Bank, five of them from occupied Jerusalem.
A large gathering of the prisoners' families greeted the released men, along with hundreds of well-wishers. Raafat Hamdouna, the director of the Prisoners Studies Centre, said that the people overlooked the 2 hour delay, which he accused Israel of planning on purpose so as to temper the families' joy at the release of their menfolk. Those gathered had braved the cold weather and Israeli checkpoints in order to be there when the men were set free.
A spokesman for Wa'ed Society for Prisoners and Ex-prisoners described the release as an "accomplishment" for the people of Palestine. However, Abdullah Qundil accused the Israelis of playing with the feelings of prisoners' families by announcing the names of prisoners who were not included in the release. He suggested that this was the result of negligence on the part of the negotiator who did not know the names of the released prisoners, the release date or the terms of the implementation of the procedure.
Commentators noted that despite the release of the third group of prisoners, the Israeli occupation authorities are still in control of the Palestinian Authority, which weakens it. The release of the prisoners, they pointed out, comes at the expense of the growth of Israel's illegal settlements and the agreement of the PA not to seek the prosecution of Israeli leaders for war crimes and crimes against humanity at the International Court of Justice.
MEMO Photographer: Mohammed Asad