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Israel Releases Palestinian Prisoners (AP) By JASON KEYSER TARQUMIYA CHECKPOINT, West Bank 08/06/03 12:33 PM EDT) Source: http://customwire.ap.org/dynamic/stories/I/ISRAEL_PALESTINIANS?SITE=DCTMS&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT
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TARQUMIYA CHECKPOINT, West Bank (AP) -- Israel freed about 340 Palestinian prisoners in a bid to jump-start halting peace efforts - but the gesture fell flat among Palestinians, who had hoped for a mass release and said authorities chose mostly prisoners whose terms were about to expire anyway.
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Still, emotional scenes were played out at the five handover points throughout the West Bank and Gaza, as freed men kissed the ground and waiting relatives chanted "God is Great" and pounded on drums before whisking the former inmates to festive hometown welcomes.
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"I´ve been waiting for this moment for a year," said Hathem Kafisheh, leaning from a bus window to pick up and hug his little daughter Alla. Kafisheh, a leader of the militant Islamic Hamas group in the West Bank city of Hebron, was arrested 13 months ago.
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But many Palestinians expressed strong dissatisfaction with Israel´s perceived failure to send an unequivocal message that a new page has been turned after almost three years of deadly violence.
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"Despite the joy that every Palestinian feels over freedom for some of the Palestinians in Israeli prisons, the Palestinian Authority ... insists on the release of all Palestinian prisoners" along a fixed timetable, said Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Amr in a statement.
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On Tuesday Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat called the release a "deceit," and Palestinian premier Mahmoud Abbas called off a planned Wednesday meeting with Israeli premier Ariel Sharon mostly because of the prisoner dispute.
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Israel still holds more than 7,000 Palestinians, primarily on suspicion of involvement in terrorism. It says that despite a one- month lull in violence since militant groups declared a temporary cease-fire, it would be dangerous to release many more prisoners as long as militant groups remain armed and able to resume attacks.
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"It is interesting that when Israel unilaterally releases prisoners ... they see fit to complain," Sharon adviser Arnon Perlman said.
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The acrimony surrounding Israel´s intended gesture of good will underscored the bitterness on both sides over the lack of progress along the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.
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Both sides have skirted key obligations: Israel has not frozen construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza or dismantled most of the 100-odd unauthorized settlement outposts. Its troops still control West Bank cities and prevent the free movement of Palestinians throughout the West Bank. The Palestinians have not disarmed and dismantled militant groups.
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The Palestinians have also been angrily protesting the massive security fence that Israel is building between its territory and the West Bank. Israel says it is a security measure to keep out suicide bombers; the Palestinians say the imposing barrier encroaches unacceptably on West Bank land.
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But the issue of prisoners has proven particularly corrosive - and Israel had hoped, apparently in vain, that a limited release would ease the pressure.
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The releases began around 2:30 p.m. (1130 GMT) as a Palestinian taxi carried the first batch of men from Israel´s Erez checkpoint into Gaza, where they were greeted by relatives waving flags and chanting "Welcome." Some of the men emerged from the taxi and kissed the ground.
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Hussein Abu Eid, 32, who served 13 years of a 15-year sentence for membership in the militant group Islamic Jihad, kissed and embraced his father for several minutes. "I miss you, my father. I wish my mother were still alive to see me and bring happiness to her heart," he said.
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Minutes later four Israeli buses escorted by police arrived at Tarqumiya checkpoint in the southern West Bank. Prisoners leaned from windows and made victory signs before the buses crossed into the Palestinian areas, where they were greeted by whistles, cheers and drumming from hundreds of waiting relatives.
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Husam Nassredim, 24, an activist in Arafat´s Fatah movement who was held without charges for 14 months, was glad to be out, but still felt trapped in Hebron, a city ringed by Israeli military checkpoints. "I went from a small prison to a bigger prison," he said, arriving home to a shower of tossed candies, balloons and rose petals.
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Other groups of prisoners were released at Tulkarem, Beitunya and Salem crossings in the West Bank.
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In all about 340 men were freed in the near-simultaneous releases. Another 100 detainees who were held for criminal charges as opposed to militant involvement will be freed later. Several dozen of the freed prisoners belonged to the Islamic militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Palestinian sources said.
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But the head of the Palestinian Prisoners´ Club in the West Bank, Khaleda Jarar, said almost half the prisoners being freed were administrative detainees held without charge, and that of the remaining prisoners serving sentences, 80 percent were in the final year of their terms.
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The Palestinian Authority said that as a protest it was not organizing official welcome ceremonies for those freed.
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Israeli officials have noted that Israel was not obligated to carry out any prisoners releases under the road map, and Sharon faced pressure from his government coalition and other quarters not to release suspected militants.
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Families of Israeli victims of Palestinian attacks had appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court to block the release. The court turned down the appeals.
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A small group of other Israelis who lost loved ones in Palestinian attacks demonstrated in support of the prisoner release Wednesday at the Tulkarem checkpoint, holding a sign saying "both sides have blood on their hands." (pvs/dp)Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. 08/06/03)
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