Israeli gesture frees hundreds

RAMALLAH, West Bank - Rami Fadayel traveled yesterday from one world to another, from an Israeli prison cell to this scene in the West Bank: celebratory gunfire by Palestinian police, children waving Palestinian flags, roses from his mother, a kiss from his fiancee and a hero's welcome from hundreds of fellow Palestinians.

For the 25-year-old former prisoner, it was a new day in the Middle East, and the events were repeated many times as Israel released 500 Palestinian prisoners, loading them on buses and transporting them to drop-off points in the West Bank and Gaza, where they were reunited with crowds of family and friends.

An additional 400 prisoners are to be freed in coming months, but yesterday's release was the largest in almost a decade. It is one of the steps that both sides are counting on to deepen the apparent trust between Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, and the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, who is seeking to cement support among Palestinian militant groups for a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"We are very happy for this first released group," said Abbas, who grinned widely while addressing released prisoners and their families at the British-built fort the Palestinians use as a presidential compound. "This is the first drop of rain. We need patience and effort side by side to return all the prisoners to their families."

The release follows the decision Sunday by Israel's Cabinet to pursue plans to evacuate Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, a move Sharon called the most difficult of his career. But he and Abbas are showing a greater willingness to take steps toward a peaceful settlement than at any time since 2001.

When a red-and-white bus carrying 49 prisoners came into view at the compound, car and bus horns wailed and Palestinian security officials fired into the air. Some freed prisoners walked to the grave of Yasser Arafat to pay their respects. Others wrapped themselves in Palestinian flags and wept as they embraced loved ones.

Despite the jubilant mood, many Palestinians were quick to express disappointment that more inmates were not freed. Israel holds more than 7,000 other prisoners and has rejected Palestinian demands for larger releases, including prisoners convicted of attacks against Israelis.

"Our happiness is not complete because there are still 7,500 Palestinians in prison. When they are released our happiness will be complete," said Fadayel, a university student who served 26 months of a 33-month sentence on charges of being a member of a radical faction of the PLO - the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - stone throwing, providing a haven for a militant and attempting to throw a Molotov cocktail.

Shaking his head, Fadayel's father, Rizek Fadayel, said the release was not so significant: "It's not a change. It's just to make Abu Mazen [Abbas] happy. If Israel wants to release those who have years still to serve, that would be a change."

Fadayel's mother, Mona, sounded even more dismissive, despite the freedom of her son. "The Israelis release a hundred and arrest a hundred," she said.

Khaleda Jarar, director of Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, said 249 of the prisoners were due to be released later this year; 80 more would have completed their sentences in 2006.

Some Israelis, too, expressed skepticism over the release. Many said they were worried that it could reignite the bloodshed that has beset the region for more than four years.

"It's true that many of them don't have blood on their hands, but it's not because they didn't try - it's because they didn't succeed," Menachem Landau, a former commander in Israel's Shin Bet security service, told Army Radio.

Relatives of Israelis killed in Palestinian attacks appealed unsuccessfully to Israel's Supreme Court to block the release, listing Israelis who have been killed over the years by freed Palestinian prisoners. The prisoners released yesterday were not directly involved in violence, officials said.

Separately yesterday, Abbas faced internal political turmoil as lawmakers refused to endorse the makeup of the new Palestinian Cabinet, saying it was tainted with corrupt politicians left over from the Arafat era.

Creating a new Cabinet is crucial for Abbas to start enacting reforms.

Calling yesterday's act a "goodwill gesture" to help Abbas, Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon, said the Palestinians must in turn make their own difficult decisions, including cracking down on militant groups. Then more prisoners - beyond the scheduled 900 - might be freed, he said.

"It doesn't make any practical or moral sense to release murderers and terrorists into an environment that is hailing them as heroes," Gissin said.

Although releasing prisoners might not always be politically popular, analysts say it is a necessary step for Israel to strengthen ties with the Palestinians.

"Israel must show supreme generosity in many areas, especially the prisoners," said Shalom Harari, a brigadier general in the Israeli army reserves and senior research fellow at Israel's International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, speaking at a conference in Jerusalem yesterday.

Some Palestinians said Israel had already taken a meaningful step forward.

Rebhi Imtir, 48, was reunited with his son Muhammad, 24, who was released yesterday after serving four years of a 7 1/2 -year sentence on weapons trading and possession charges. The sentence reduction, for Imtir, indicates that the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians might be turning a corner.

"This is a good accomplishment. Everything depends on ... Israel. If they are interested in a cease-fire, the Palestinians will put their arms away," he said. "We wish that things are changing. We ask God things will be good this time."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.