Palestinian prisonners freed in “a gesture for peace”

Hours before the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was due to arrive, Israel freed dozens of Palestinian prisoners in a gesture aimed at boosting Middle East peace. The group of 198 included the longest-serving prisonner held by Israel. Said al-Atabeh was arrested in 1977 and jailed for life for a bombing which killed one Israeli woman and wounded dozens more people.

In all, 199 prisonners were to have been freed, but one was held back over a separate criminal charge.
There are some 11,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails, and their release is a highly-emotional issue. Several cabinet ministers had opposed freeing those convicted of attacks on Israelis, but a high-level committee gave its approval a week ago.

Israel said it was a confidence-boosting measure to bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah faction has been losing ground to Hamas over the past year. Many of the group were due to have completed their sentences in the next 12 months, but some had at least five more years to serve. Their offences ranged from shootings to stone-throwing.

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