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Israel Frees 500 Prisoners

Israel started to release the first group of 500 Palestinian prisoners early Monday, Israel radio reported.

The move, which was promised by Israel at the Israeli-Palestinian summit held at Egypt's Red Sea resort Sharm el-Sheikh earlier this month, aimed to end a four-year bloodshed and bolster peace efforts with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Fourteen buses carried manacled Palestinians from an Israeli jail at Ketziot, in southern Israel's Negev desert, to be freed among 500 prisoners in the largest release for nearly a decade.

Israeli military officials said all 500 Palestinian prisoners were expected to have been delivered to crossing points on the edges of the Gaza Strip and West Bank. However, Israel has insisted it would refuse to release Palestinians involved in attacks which caused Israeli casualties.

Israel is planning to release another 400 prisoners within the next three months.

A joint Israeli-Palestinian ministerial committee will decide prisoners released in the second round.

Prospects for peacemaking in the Middle East have strengthened since Abbas was elected to succeed Yasser Arafat on a platform of non-violence and persuaded the armed factions to follow a de facto truce.

However, the Islamic Jihad (Holy War) and the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) reacted Monday to the release, saying it was not enough for a truce.

Nafez Azzam, a senior Jihad leader, told reporters that the release should be considered an achievement, but not a complete one since there were still children, women, ill and elderly prisoners serving long terms in Israeli jails.

Hamas echoed Azzam's view.

"The release is just a tiny part of our demands," Musheerel-Masri, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, said.
The spokesman said all 8,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails must be released.

The release of prisoners comes a day after Israel's cabinet approved a plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, marking the first time Israel decided to dismantle settlements on land Palestinians want for a state.

None of the prisoners - the first of 900 to be freed in coming weeks - had been found guilty of attacks that killed or injured Israelis.

Most had already served at least two-thirds of their sentences.

They were to be released at crossing points to the West Bank and Gaza in the biggest release since 1996, when 800 were freed.

Exiled Palestinians home

In a precursor on Sunday to the prisoner release, Israel allowed a group of 16 Palestinians exiled in Gaza during a more than four-year uprising to return home to the West Bank.

Israel had said they were militants.

"Your arrival here in Ramallah today is a fulfillment of our promise to our people and to you," Abbas told the men, who flashed victory signs.

Sharon's plan to withdraw settlers from the Gaza Strip and a little of the West Bank next year, touted as a possible springboard to negotiations on a US-backed peace "roadmap," won vital approval from Israel's cabinet on Sunday. Sharon gave the order for evacuations to start on July 20.

Abbas, striking a conciliatory tone, told German weekly Der Spiegel that Palestinians may be willing to accept that not all refugees can return to their homes in what is now Israel in a final peace deal, saying where they go was subject to talks.

(China Daily February 22, 2005)


Israeli Cabinet Approves Evacuation Plan
Israel Halts Razing of Palestinian Homes
Evacuation Compensation Bill Passed in Israeli Parliament
Israel, Palestinians Strike Truce Deal
900 Palestinian Prisoners to Gain Freedom
Sharon, Abbas to Join Peace Summit
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