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Israel frees 500 prisoners

February 22, 2005

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BETUNIA, Feb 21: Israel freed 500 Palestinian prisoners on Monday in the largest mass release for nearly a decade, a gesture meant to bolster a cease fire deal with new Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Even as smiling prisoners flashed V-for-victory signs from bus windows while passing Israeli checkpoints on the way home, the Fatah faction further strengthened Abbas's hand by approving a new cabinet with reform-minded loyalists in key posts.

Prospects for peacemaking have brightened since Mr Abbas succeeded the late Yasser Arafat on a platform of non-violence and persuaded militants to abide by a de facto truce. But while freed detainees met scenes of jubilation in the West Bank and Gaza, many Palestinians say Abbas will need even larger releases to get armed groups to formalise the cease fire he agreed with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at a Feb 8 summit.

Israel still holds about 8,000 prisoners, and Mr Abbas vowed to put winning their freedom at the "top of our priorities". "We feel pain because we left our brothers ... in jail," said Islamic Jihad member Hassan Abu Armana, who served two years in Israeli prisons. "There will be no peace, no security, no stability without the release of all prisoners."

The freeing of detainees came a day after Israel's cabinet approved a plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, marking the first time Israel decided to dismantle settlements on land Palestinians want for a state.

Far-right Israelis and relatives of victims of Palestinian suicide bombings launched a failed court bid to block the prisoner release, though Israeli officials insisted none of those freed were involved in attacks that wounded or killed.

Buses left Israeli jails before dawn carrying handcuffed prisoners, many smiling broadly through the windows, to border crossings in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Some knelt in prayer before transferring to Palestinian buses for the trip home, where they were hugged, kissed and hoisted onto the shoulders of friends and relatives. -Reuters