Israel pleases few with prisoner release
While hundreds of Palestinians were let go Wednesday, thousands are still in jail.
TARQUMIYEH, WEST BANK
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
"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.