08/25/2008, 00.00
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Israel frees 199 Palestinian prisoners

The release coincides with the arrival in Jerusalem of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Two convicted killers of Israelis are among the freed prisoners, a choice that sparked dissent within the Israeli cabinet.

Ramallah (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Flags, choirs, speeches and songs greeted the first of the 199 prisoners released by Israel when they arrived at the Beituniya checkpoint near Ramallah.

“Our reception of the prisoners tomorrow will be like a national wedding,” said Palestinian Prison Affairs Minister Ashraf al-Ajrami. And this is exactly what is happening.

The Olmert government justified the prisoner release, including for the first time two men who killed Israelis, as a way to help Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in its confrontation with Hamas.

Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin said last week that the release of the prisoners “creates pressure on Hamas and is likely to accelerate the negotiations over Gilad Shalit,” the Israeli soldier held by the fundamentalist group for the past three years.

The timing of the release is also a gesture of good will towards the United States, which has recently criticised Israel for not taking any concrete steps in the peace process. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives today in Israel.

The release process has had a bumpy road. Israel’s cabinet held three separate votes on the prisoner issue. Domestic political considerations related to the succession of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who resigned some weeks ago, have shaped the debate. One of the main candidates, current Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, voted against release altogether.

Among the prisoners freed there was Said al-Attaba, 56, Israel’s longest serving Palestinian sentenced in 1977 for killing an Israeli woman, and Mohammed Ibrahim Abu Ali, 51, who was imprisoned in 1979 for killing an Israeli reservist.

The release of these two prisoners split the Israeli cabinet. The Jewish state has always refused to free people with “blood on their hands”.

Marwan Barghouti, the best known Fatah leader, was not included in the group of prisoners to be freed even though President Abbas had personally included his name in the list.

Barghouti is Fatah’s most popular leader, a possible successor to Abbas himself.

A former head of the movement’s military wing, he is in an Israeli jail on a life sentence after being tried for a number of attacks.

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