In a timely boost to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Israel on Monday freed 429 Palestinian prisoners. Their release was seen as a goodwill gesture toward Abbas, who is anxious to show Palestinians that he did not return from the Annapolis summit empty-handed. Abbas needs all the help he can get from Israel and the U.S. He is locked in a power struggle with the Islamic movement Hamas, which last June seized control of the Gaza strip and chased out Abbas' militia.
The U.S.-sponsored peace summit last week concluded with a pledge by Israel and the Palestinians to negotiate a final solution by the end of 2008 to the decades-old regional conflict. But Palestinians wanted more out of Annapolis than mere words and hazy promises. Before the summit, Abbas was pushing the Israelis to release up to 2,000 Palestinian inmates, but Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert refused. (Israel is holding more than 10,000 Palestinian inmates, many in jail for for years without being charged or put on trial.) It was only after U.S. prodding, Palestinian sources told TIME, that Israel agreed to free 429 Palestinian inmates, none engaged in terrorist activities. Presidential sources told TIME that the Israelis were ready to release them before the Annapolis summit, but delayed the move at Abbas' request, so that he could take the credit.
Busloads of jubilant prisoners crossed the Israeli checkpoint into the Palestinian town of Ramallah. Escorted by a procession of honking cars and Palestinians cheering and waving flags, the buses rolled into Abbas' high-walled headquarters good P.R. for the President, as intended. There was no denying the open joy and gratitude that the families of the freed prisoners expressed toward Abbas. Spilling out of the buses, the ex-detainees were mobbed and kissed by relatives. Some tumbled out of the bus windows, straight into arms of tearful mothers. The official Israeli statement made clear who was meant to benefit from the move as well. "Today's release of Palestinian prisoners is aimed at reinforcing moderate Palestinian leaders and at favoring political dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians," Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said.
However, some Palestinians expressed cynicism over the release. All of those just freed belonged to Abbas' own Fatah movement; detainees of other resistance groups were skipped over. One jailed Fatah leader, Marwan Barghouti, described the release as "a joke." He added: ""Israel can free thousands of prisoners, not just 400. Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] requested the release of more prisoners but was denied by Israel." Israeli army officials grumbled publicly about the prisoners' release, especially those of 20 Palestinians headed back to Gaza. Militants based there are constantly shooting home-made rockets at Israel.
As for the results of Annapolis, the main players at the summit vowed that negotiations would be off to a quick start. But no sooner did Olmert and Abbas fly back in the Middle East than they began issuing contradictory statements. Olmert said that the "end of 2008" for a final solution was actually a flexible deadline; meanwhile, Abbas refused to accept Olmert's declaration that Israel was "a Jewish state," since to do otherwise might take away the right of 4.5 million Palestinian refugees who are still demanding their right to return to their original homes, vacated in 1948 and in 1967.
Stopping in Cairo after the Annapolis summit, Abbas was urged by Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak to resume talks with Hamas. The Islamists were elected to run the Palestinian government in January 2006, but neither Abbas nor the international community accepts their full legitimacy. Hamas' charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state. But after Annapolis, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states are making it their priority to urge Abbas into rebuilding unity with Hamas, even if the Bush Administration and Israel oppose the idea. With reporting by Jamil Hamad/Bethlehem