Israel Releases Hundreds of Palestinian Prisoners

Israel of releases nearly 400 Palestinian prisoners as part of a February agreement between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. The former detainees were taken from jails to checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

We're going to begin this hour in the Middle East. Israel released hundreds of Palestinian prisoners today, saying it was a goodwill gesture to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. This was the second stage of a prisoner release Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed to in February. NPR's Linda Gradstein was in the West Bank as the freed prisoners arrived there.

LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:

Some of the 398 prisoners were released at the Beitunia crossing point near Ramallah. They came off the buses carrying black duffel bags, many wearing black-and-white checked kaffiyehs, or head scarves. Some of the men prayed. Others knelt and kissed the ground. On the Palestinian side of the checkpoint, the freed prisoners were met by hundreds of cheering friends and relatives.

(Soundbite of rhythmic clapping)

Crowd: (Singing in unison in foreign language)

GRADSTEIN: The buses, with Palestinian flags flying from every window, then traveled to the Muqata, the battered Ramallah compound where Abbas has his offices. Along the way hundreds of cars honked their horns, and Palestinian police fired in the air in celebration. Abbas himself was not there to greet the prisoners. He is recovering from what was described as minor heart surgery performed yesterday in Jordan. He is due back in the West Bank tomorrow.

Released prisoner Salameh Asheh(ph) stood in the street next to the compound clutching his 12-year-old nephew's hand. Asheh's brother hovered behind them grinning from ear to ear. Asheh says he was jailed four years ago, just after he turned 18, for membership in the ruling Fatah movement and organizing demonstrations against Israel. He had served less than half of his nine-year sentence when he was freed today.

Mr. SALAMEH ASHEH: (Through Translator) I am pleased and very happy. He supports peace, and we hope the next stage will mean all the prisoners will be freed.

GRADSTEIN: He says he's not sure what he'll do now but that his goals haven't changed.

Mr. ASHEH: (Through Translator) We hope to finish our task for the liberation of our people from the enemy.

GRADSTEIN: Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev says the prisoner release is meant to strengthen Mahmoud Abbas and other Palestinian moderates.

Mr. MARK REGEV (Spokesperson, Israeli Foreign Ministry): Israel understands that if this process is going to work, peoples on both sides have to understand that there are tangible benefits in reconciliation; that it's not just leaders meeting but that the peoples have something to gain. And I think this prisoner release, which isn't easy for Israel to do--every terrorist in jail is there for a reason: an attempt to kill Israelis, an involvement in terrorist attacks against our citizens. But we're taking this step in the hope that this step will strengthen moderates on the Palestinian side and that we can move together in a process of reconciliation.

GRADSTEIN: But most of the former prisoners and their families said today's release was not enough. Palestinian officials say there are more than 8,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails, and they want them all released.

In Ramallah, the mother of another freed detainee, Uen Abdul Karim Schkar(ph), stood next to her son and said much more has to be done before there can be peace with Israel.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

GRADSTEIN: `We will only be really happy when all of the prisoners are released and we get all of our rights, including the return of all Palestinian refugees and East Jerusalem,' she said. `Then we can live side by side with no problems.' Israeli and Palestinian officials announced today that Sharon and Abbas will hold their next meeting on June 21st. It will be their first meeting since February, when the prisoner release was announced. Linda Gradstein, NPR News.

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