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Israel frees 334 Palestinians, angering both sides of conflict


Recent developments
Beirut's 'Security Square'
Newsday in the Mideast
RAMALLAH, West Bank - For the first time in 26 months, Awad and Sulieman Mashal were free, and friends hoisted the brothers above a crowd, everyone's cheers drowned out by the blasts of car horns as people celebrated the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails yesterday.

It was a chaotic conclusion to an event carefully choreographed by the Israeli army, a political gesture that managed to infuriate Palestinians and at least a small number of Israelis.

For many Palestinians, the number of men released yesterday was far too small; for some Israelis, the 334 people let go was far too high. Palestinian and Israeli officials competed to say whether the release was an example of good or bad faith in supporting the American-backed peace plan known as the road map.

And the joy the Mashals felt was tempered because another brother, Lawrence, remained behind bars, and a fourth, Luay, was killed during fighting between Israelis and Palestinians two years ago.

"I'm happy to be free, but what about the others?" Awad Mashal, 22, said amid a crush of people trying to shake his hands, practically pushing him off a friend's shoulders in Manara Square, the city's main gathering place.

Palestinian officials warned that a cease-fire that has held for a month "is in grave danger" if the prison gates are not opened wider. While Israel pulled out all the stops with the media to showcase yesterday's release as a generous goodwill gesture that proves it is serious about peace, the Palestinians tried instead to focus on the prisoners who remain in custody. Palestinian officials called the prisoner release a public relations sham that made for good television but did little to advance the road map.

To protest, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas canceled a meeting scheduled for yesterday with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Palestinian Cabinet Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo called the release "worthless and meaningless, a theatrical stunt to appease Washington."

Arnon Perlman, an Israeli government spokesman, countered at a news conference in Jerusalem yesterday, "It is interesting that when Israel unilaterally releases prisoners they see fit to complain."

Of the 334 Palestinian prisoners released yesterday, 182 were convicted of crimes ranging from throwing stones at soldiers to being members of outlawed militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad; 152 of those released were never formally charged with a crime and were held in administrative detention.

Estimates of the total number of Palestinian prisoners vary depending on who is counting. Israeli army officers say the number is 5,760. Palestinian groups say the figure is closer to 7,000.

Most were arrested during the past three years of fighting, but others have been in jail for more than two decades and are the people Palestinian officials wanted to see released first. Since the cease-fire took effect June 29, the Israeli army has arrested 237 additional Palestinians in cities that remain under Israeli military control.

A Palestinian prisoners group complained that most of the prisoners released yesterday were nearing the end of their sentences. Some prisoners were just days away from being freed without any special measures. More than 50 were scheduled to be released by the end of the year.

Yesterday in Manara Square, Um Mashal cried and sang at the same time. The 50-year-old wife of a grocery store owner in a village north of Ramallah welcomed home her two sons but said she hasn't seen her other son since he was arrested two years ago when Israeli solders came to her home.

She danced next to her boys, pumping her arms excitedly into the air until Sulieman, 26, calmed her down. Sulieman and Awad said they were members of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and had engaged in "military operations" against the Israelis.

"The house was empty, and now it will be full again, almost," Um Mashal said, leaping in the air. "I'm both happy and angry."

"It is a good feeling to have them home, but releasing only 300 is a joke," said her husband, Salim, 56. "We want all of them. I'm proud of what my sons did. They were protecting their village." His sons' sentences were to expire in October.

The Mashals were released at the Baytuniya checkpoint outside Ramallah, a gravel parking lot usually used by Israeli and Palestinian trucks to transfer goods across a concrete barrier. Others were freed at four other West Bank checkpoints with military precision at 2:30 p.m.

Foreign journalists had been briefed by the army the day before about where to go and at what time, and they were assured that relatives of the prisoners would be waiting for them at the other side of the checkpoints.

"We will do this in a dignified manner," a senior Israeli army official said. Prisoners had to sign a declaration while being videotaped, promising not to engage in "terrorist acts" against Israel as a condition for their freedom.

Before the bus with the Mashal brothers and 68 others arrived at Baytuniya, the checkpoint was the scene of a political street fair. An Israeli opposed to the release read from the Bible and vowed to replace Sharon as prime minister. Palestinian journalists sang a song about statehood. Israeli mothers carried framed photos of children killed in Palestinian suicide bombings, while Palestinian mothers pleaded with soldiers to see their jailed sons - prisoners who had not made the release list and would not be coming home.

Even though Sharon has promised he would never free a Palestinian directly linked to the deaths of Israelis, a handful of angry Israeli protesters showed up and warned that what Palestinian officials dismissed as a token gesture sets a dangerous precedent.

"The people being released today will start the next intifada," said Dov Kalminovitz, a Jerusalem accountant whose face remains disfigured from a Molotov cocktail that was thrown into his car nearly a decade ago in the West Bank.

Joshua Lax, from the ultra-Orthodox city of Bene Baraq outside of Tel Aviv, complained that Sharon had sold out his state. "We ask the Lord to save us from the politicians who release murderers and people who support murderers," he said. "This is not a step toward peace. It is a step toward more terror."

At 2:30 p.m., a red-and-white bus arrived at the checkpoint, and the first group of prisoners stepped off. An Israeli protester broke through a police line and charged a small table where two Palestinian Authority officials sat across from two Israeli army commanders to finalize the transfer. Police quickly tackled the man and hauled him off by his feet.

Then the rest of the prisoners disembarked and paused under the blinding sun, bewildered at the sight of about 200 journalists who were watching them. The former prisoners were dressed in clean clothes and carried duffelbags; some knelt and kissed the ground in prayer.

Soldiers quickly ushered the released men into a fleet of minivan cabs as reporters jumped into their cars and chased the vans at reckless speeds in a parade through crowded streets.

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