RAMALLAH, August 25 – Israel on Monday started releasing 199 Palestinian prisoners in a goodwill gesture to president Mahmud Abbas as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice headed to the region to give US-backed peace talks a push.
Palestinian officials, including minister of prisoner affairs Ashraf al-Ajrami, greeted the prisoners as they boarded buses at Israel’s Ofer military detention centre in the occupied West Bank just hours before Rice’s scheduled arrival on her 18th visit in two years.
The prisoners were to be formally released at Beituniya checkpoint near Ramallah, the political capital of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and then head to Abbas’s presidential compound for an official celebration.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert proposed the release earlier this month, saying that it would bolster the Western-backed Abbas, whom he has met on a roughly fortnightly basis since the talks were formally relaunched in November.
"It is a gesture towards the Palestinian leadership to strengthen moderate and pragmatic forces," Olmert’s spokesman Mark Regev told AFP on Monday.
"We hope it will contribute to a positive climate," he said, adding: "It is not easy release prisoners, and particularly those who have been involved in murderous terrorist attacks."
In a rare and controversial exception to its policy of not freeing those implicated in deadly attacks against its citizens, the Israeli government included in the release list two of the longest-serving Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
Said al-Attaba, 56, has been serving a life sentence since 1977 for killing an Israeli woman, and Mohammed Ibrahim Abu Ali, 51, known as "Abu Ali Yatta," has been behind bars since 1979 for killing an Israeli student.
Abu Ali, a member of Abbas’s Fatah party, was elected to parliament in 2006 while behind bars.
Ajrami said on Sunday the decision to release the two men was a "small step opening the door to bigger ones" and a sign that Israel was easing its criteria for releasing some of the more than 10,000 Palestinians held in Israeli jails.
"Releasing these kinds of prisoners indicates that the criteria Israel used in the past will not endure. This clears the way for other prisoners," he said.
On Sunday, the Israeli High Court rejected a petition by relatives of Palestinian attack victims who sought to block the release.
The court said it did not find any legal flaw that would justify its intervention in what it called a political decision.
The release was seen as a boost to Rice’s efforts to push the Israelis and the Palestinians forward in their stated effort to reach a peace agreement by early 2009.
The two sides have made little tangible progress on resolving the core issues of the conflict, including final borders, the status of Jerusalem, and the fate of 4.6 million UN-registered Palestinian refugees.
The process has been marred by violence in and around the Gaza Strip, where the Islamist Hamas movement seized power in June 2007, and Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank, including annexed east Jerusalem.
Rice was last in Israel in mid-June, when she strongly criticised the expansion of the Jewish settlements, saying it undermined the peace process.
The latest visit will be Rice’s first to the region since Olmert announced on July 30 that he will resign from his post to battle corruption allegations after his centrist Kadima party chooses a new leader in mid-September.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who has been leading Israel’s negotiating team with the Palestinians, is a front-runner to replace him, as is Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz, a hawkish former general.