Israel pleases few with prisoner release

While hundreds of Palestinians were let go Wednesday, thousands are still in jail.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Their families waited for them for five hours in the beating sun, and when the freed Palestinian prisoners arrived, the men beat bongo drums and the women beat their tongues against the roofs of their mouths in joy.

But as families here welcomed more than 100 of the 339 prisoners released by Israel Wednesday, what resonated most strongly was the debate among Palestinians over how to receive the confidence-building measure aimed at trying to prepare a path back to the road map to Middle East peace.

As they waited at this crossing outside Hebron for brothers and sons and fathers to arrive, some Palestinians applauded the release as an encouraging step forward. Many others, however, dismissed it as an inadequate move that represented just another rotation in the revolving door of Palestinians going in and out of Israeli jails.

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"I don't believe in peace or in the cease-fire," says Ibrahim Baradaye, an unemployed father of four with a wispy black beard, as he waited to receive one of his three brothers from an Israeli prison. "There is no peace between Muslims and nonbelievers. My brother was due to be released in 40 days anyway, and so they release him instead of the men who have been in prison for a long time. The release of prisoners is only for propaganda - it's just cosmetic."

A foot away, a man eavesdropping on Mr. Baradaye grows frustrated with his pessimism. "Why don't we accept what they offer?" snaps Bilal Ghenaidi, a Hebron shopkeeper the same age as Baradaye. Mr. Ghenaidi, a slim man with a freshly shaven face, was waiting for his younger brother, Islaam, a member of Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction. "If this step is followed by other steps, it's a good step!"

The release of Palestinian prisoners is a goodwill gesture by the Israeli government that comes amid a broader, U.S.-backed bid to take advantage of the "hudna," Arabic for temporary cease-fire, to lure Israelis and Palestinians back to peacemaking after the violent breakdown of talks in September 2000, the start of the second intifada. The hudna is due to expire at the end of September, and some here say it will be extended only if the scope and frequency of confidence-building measures on both sides continue and the relative lull in violence holds.

Leading Palestinian officials have rejected Israel's prisoner release as insufficient both in numbers and in terms of the type of prisoners. On Monday Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat dismissed the prisoner release as worthless and a "deception," telling reporters at his Ramallah compound: "They say they are going to release 400, and then they turn around and arrest 800."

A middle-aged mother with two sons in jail - one of them to be released Wednesday and the other serving five life sentences - echoed Mr. Arafat's gripe. "When they release some, they just arrest some more," says Sara Ahmed Ighnimat. "But the rain starts with just one drop."

Still, whether Wednesday's shower could spill over into greater change in the Middle East remains far from certain.

Palestinians say that Israel must release much greater numbers of the approximately 6,000 detainees in its jails. Of them, about 785 Palestinians are held in administrative detention, meaning they are held without charges or a trial, says B'Tselem, one of Israel's leading human rights organizations. Among those held in administrative detention, which B'Tselem says is illegal, 161 were to released Wednesday.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, for his part, is taking on the risk of alienating some of his own right-wing constituents by letting Palestinian prisoners go before their sentences are served. Many Israelis who have lost family members in terrorist attacks are vehemently opposed to releasing prisoners who might go out and resume anti-Israel violence.

Lack of agreement over the scope of the prisoner withdrawal led Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to pull out of talks which had been set to be held Wednesday with Mr. Sharon. The meeting was to focus on ways to resume discussion of the road map, introduced by President Bush, which proposes to end the violence against Israel and create a Palestinian state by 2005.

All of the prisoners being released had to sign a document promising not to be involved in any further anti-Israel activities. Anyone refusing to sign would not be released, an Israeli army spokesman said. Some of the Palestinians waiting here said some of their incarcerated relatives refused to sign the document, and were therefore turned down for release.

"My brother refused to sign, and for sure, he shouldn't have," said Zeinab Khakhour, who came to receive another relative. "The resistance should continue."

Many of the Palestinians being released expressed ambivalence over their decisions to sign. As Abdel Mageed al-Amer descended from the bus, a group of Arabic television reporters circled around him. He is a spokesman for Hamas, which does not recognize Israel and has vowed to resume operations against Israel in the future. "I feel humiliated that I signed this paper," Mr. Amer says. "I'm still under occupation. For sure, we respect our signatures, but our goals are bigger than all these pledges."

Israeli officials say they cannot understand why the release of prisoners, not specifically outlined in the road map, has raised more ire than enthusiasm. "This is not part of the road map. This is a Israeli gesture and we didn't have to do this," says Daniel Seaman, the director of Israel's Government Press Office.

"We do expect the Palestinians to improve the atmosphere and the general situation. It's a shame that they have to use this moment to raise the level of disappointment, and that they're using this as another way to dampen the spirit and the excitement of moving forward."

The incremental easing of Israeli restrictions on Palestinian territory are just beginning to be felt. Ghenaidi, the Hebron shopkeeper, is willing to give it a chance. "There is a little improvement after the hudna. Instead of six checkpoints between Ramallah and Hebron, now we have three. But "if conditions are not eased further," including the release of more prisoners, "there is a fear the hudna will collapse."

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