Freed inmates return to West Bank
BEITUNIA, West Bank
A Palestinian prisoner hugs his mother as he arrives in Rafah after being released on Dec 18. Israel released 550 Palestinian prisoners to complete a swap deal. AFP photoIsrael released hundreds of Palestinian prisoners late Sunday, the second and final phase of a swap with Gaza Hamas militants that brought home an Israeli soldier after five years in captivity.
The release took place quietly under the cover of darkness, as most of the prisoners descended from buses and made their way into the West Bank and Gaza, the Associated Press reported. Hundreds of well-wishers greeted the freed prisoners by waving Palestinian flags and shooting guns in the air in Gaza. “I am so glad that I am back, this is a real victory,” said released prisoner Kamal Madheem, 40.
“We managed to get 20 percent of our prisoners released from Israeli jails in exchange for one soldier,” Hamas spokesman Abu Obeida said in Gaza. Under the Egypt-brokered deal, Israel agreed to exchange a total of 1,027 prisoners for Sgt. Gilad Schalit, who was captured by Gaza militants in June 2006. Schalit returned home in October when Israel freed the first batch of 477 prisoners. Sunday’s release of 550 prisoners completed the swap, the most lopsided in Israel’s history.
Under the terms of the deal, Israel chose the prisoners to be freed Dec. 18. Prison officials said most were serving light sentences or near the end of their terms, and only 41 were returning to Gaza. More than 500 were sent to the West Bank, which is ruled by Hamas’ rival, President Mahmoud Abbas, and most of them were believed to be linked to Abbas’ Fatah movement. Israel is interested in bolstering Abbas at a time when Islamic groups like Hamas are gaining in power throughout the Middle East.
Hamas enjoyed a huge boost of popularity following the October release. The Palestinians have been divided between two rival governments since Hamas expelled Abbas’ forces and seized control of Gaza in 2007. In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said the movement welcomed the release of all prisoners, regardless of their political affiliation. “We are proud of this great achievement,” he said.
A few hours earlier, a large group of Palestinians threw rocks and firebombs at Israeli troops at the West Bank checkpoint near the city of Ramallah, where the prisoners were released. The military said one soldier was injured.
Israel Prison Service (IPS) spokeswoman Sivan Weizman said that 55 of those to be freed were minors and the prisoners included six women. None of the released prisoners was serving a life term, Israeli daily Haaretz reported.