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Israel releases 198 Palestinian prisoners, including 32-year detainee

Aug. 25, 2008 9:58 A.M. (Updated: Aug. 25, 2008 9:58 A.M.)
Bethlehem - Ma'an - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas welcomed 198 newly liberated Palestinian prisoners at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Monday.

The scene at the Muqata'a was one of pronouncedly mixed emotions: jubilation at the release of the prisoners, and sadness for the 11,000 Palestinians still in Israeli jails. One Sunday night alone, Israel seized six more Palestinians during a raid in Ramallah.

"We'll never feel comfortable unless all prisoners are freed and prisons are cleared. There will be no peace without releasing all the prisoners," said Abbas, speaking to the assembled prisoners, families, and PA officials.

Addressing women prisoners who are still imprisoned, he said, "Your turn will come."

Turning to the political issues at stake in his negotiations with Israel, he asserted that the status of "Jerusalem, settlements, refugees and borders either can be solved together, at once, or we will not accept other solutions. "

Most prominent among the freed prisoners is Sa'id Al-Atabah, who spent 32 years in jail. Another senior prisoner released on Monday is Abu Ali Yatta, who spent 28 years in jail, as well as senior Fatah leader Husam Khadir who served six years.

The Prisoners lined up and entered the Muqata'a to shake hands with President Abbas. Security officers worked hard to regulate the flow of hundreds of supporters who flocked to the Muqata'a. The freed prisoners then visited the grave of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat before returning to the embrace of their families.

Al-Atabah, the longest-serving prisoner and a member of the leftist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palesinte (DFLP), laid flowers and recited verses from the Qur'an at the grave of Yasser Arafat.

The Israeli cabinet had previously approved a list of 199 detainees for release as a "goodwill gesture" to Abbas, with whom the Israeli government is negotiating a peace deal. At the last minute, Israeli authorities removed one prisoner from the list, on the grounds that he is a criminal, not a "security prisoner" like the others.

The spokesman of Palestinian prisoners at Israel's Ofer prison, Nabil Abu Qbeitah, said that the inmates left their tents in the early morning and were put on busses that will took them to the Beituniuya checkpoint, near Ramallah, where they were released.

The Israel Prison service had transferred the men to Ofer, a facility inside the West Bank, near Ramallah, from various prisons.

Palestinian Minister of Prisoners Affairs Ashraf Al-Ajrami said the gesture represented a breach of Israel's usual conditions for the release of prisoners. During a press conference in Ramallah Sunday, Al-Ajrami said that since the Oslo Accords, Israel has not released any long-term prisoners who were captured before Oslo.

Right-wing Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu slammed the government's decision to release the prisoners, especially those "with their hands soaked in blood" while Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit is still detained in the Gaza Strip.

The release of the Palestinian prisoners coincides with arrival of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Israel and the Palestinian territories on Monday. Rice is in the region in an attempt to reinvigorate stalled peace negotiations.

Israeli forces raided Ramallah overnight and seized 6 Palestinians. Eyewitnesses told Ma'an that Israeli forces also arrested Palestinians imposing a curfew on the village of Dar Salah village in the Bethlehem district in the southern West Bank.

***Updated at 12:32 local time

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