Israel's Goodwill Gesture: 198 Palestinians Freed

Move seen as a gesture of support for Palestinian President Mohammad Abbas.

JERUSALEM, Aug 25, 2008 — -- Israel released 198 Palestinian prisoners today as a gesture of support for Palestinian President Mohammad Abbas, who promptly told a crowd of supporters he would seek the release of Marwan Barghouti, a convicted terrorist who is seen as a possible president of a future Palestinian state.

The prisoner release came hours before U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Israel to renew her push for a Mideast peace deal by the end of the year.

In Ramallah, Abbas told cheering crowds at the prisoners' welcoming ceremony, "There will be no peace without the release of all Palestinians imprisoned in Israel."

According to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, he told the flag-wavng crowd, "We will not rest until the prisoners are freed and the jails are empty."

Abbas told them he would like to see prisoners with life sentences released and mentioned Barghouti, the leader of the armed group Tanzim, who is viewed as a future Palestinian president.

Barghouti is serving five consecutive life terms for his involvement in terror attacks that killed many Israelis, according to the Jerusalem Post.

Abbas also cited Ahmed Saadat, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who is responsible for the assassination of Hamas Palestinian parliament speaker Aziz Duaik and tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi. Hamas is the main rival of Abbas' Fatah party.

An Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs press release said the criteria for releasing prisoners rules out the release of prisoners with "blood on their hands," meaning those who have killed Israelis. Nevertheless, two Palestinians "with blood on their hands" were among those released today.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, told ABC News that Israel made an exception with the release of Muhammad Abu Ali and Said al-Atba. Both men were serving life sentences for killing numerous Israelis.

"These two prisoners were directly involved in murder," Regev told ABC News. "There was a special request from Abbas to bring about their release. Despite the difficulties, we decided to acquiesce to the request."

According to the Jerusalem Post, Abu Ali was imprisoned in 1980 for the fatal shooting of a 20-year-old Danish immigrant. He was later convicted of killing a Palestinian in jail whom Abu Ali suspected of cooperating with Israel.

Al-Atba, convicted in 1977 for his role in a market explosion that killed 54-year-old Tzila Galili, was the longest-held Palestinian prisoner, according to the Jerusalem Post. He had been found guilty of bomb-making and illegal military training and for his role in an illegal organization.

The 198 prisoners were transferred from the Ofer prison after signing a promise to forgo terrorist activity to a north Jerusalem checkpoint.

The Israeli government appointed a ministerial committee, whose duty it was to approve the list of prisoners that fit the criteria set by the coordinating committee headed by the director general of the Ministry of Justice.

"Now, this is not an easy decision for Israel, especially when you talk about people who are guilty of active murder against innocent civilians," Regev said. "Nevertheless, we decided to move forward."

The press release explains that the Israeli government's vote to make an exception to the "blood on their hands" criteria was made under consideration of the prisoners' long sentences and with the view that they would pose a low risk to public security after being released.

Regev told ABC News, "It is important to show the people that moderate leaders can deliver more tangible results than extremist leaders ever can."

Like Abbas, Palestinian Prisoner Affairs Minister Ashraf al-Ajami hopes to see thousands more prisoners freed.

He told Israel Radio, "We view today's prisoner release as a step in the right direction and we hope the Israeli government will negotiate with the Palestinian leadership about the next prisoner release when a list will be compiled by different criteria, so that all Palestinian prisoners will be released."

Al-Ajami has yet to determine what Israel will get in exchange for the prisoners' release.

"The release is part of the peace process," he said. "We hope this process will succeed and we'll arrive at peace, security and stability in the region."

Regev explains that Israel's gesture was done to accelerate the drawn-out peace-talks.

"We see this as an important confidence building measure," he told ABC News. "We understand the sensitivity of prisoner issues to Palestinian society, and we want to try to strengthen Palestinian pragmatics and to help with peace and reconciliation."