Israel Frees Palestinian Prisoners

Israel released hundreds of Palestinian prisoners on Thursday, completing a pledge made under a cease-fire agreement, hours after Israel and the Palestinians announced their leaders would soon meet for the first time since February.

The prisoners flashed the victory sign and kissed the ground after they were released from an Israeli military prison, reports CBS News Correspondent Robert Berger. Israel freed the 398 prisoners under a cease-fire agreement reached four months ago, with the aim of strengthening moderate Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. But with 7,000 security prisoners in Israeli jails, Palestinians say it's still not enough.

In other developments:

  • Abbas was released from a hospital in neighboring Jordan after undergoing a heart procedure. Abbas, who has a history of heart trouble, told reporters he felt "just fine." Doctors said Abbas underwent a coronary angiogram — a common procedure to ensure that the arteries are not clogged. Palestinian officials said Abbas' June 21 summit with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon remains on schedule. Abbas' health is seen as vital for regional stability, says Berger.
  • Ending his three-year term on a note of pessimism, Israel's outgoing army chief Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon warned of new violence after Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip this summer, predicted an eventual war with the Palestinian state, and said he fears for his country's survival. Yaalon, 54, leaves his job Wednesday with hard feelings over the defense minister's decision to dismiss him a year before he completed the traditional four-year term.
  • Israel security officials are considering renting a kibbutz, or collective farm, in southern Israel to practice for the upcoming evacuation from the Gaza Strip and West Bank settlements. Kibbutz residents would pretend to be settlers refusing to leave theirs homes.
  • A small-time computer break-in has erupted into Israel's biggest business scandal in decades, reaching into some of the country's powerful corporate suites and jolting the cozy world of the industrial elite. Top Israeli blue chip companies, including a high-tech giant that trades in New York, are suspected of using illicit surveillance software to steal information from their rivals and enemies.

    The release of Palestinian prisoners is not popular in Israel, which has seen more than 100 suicide bombings during more than four years of conflict.

    "I say there is no justice, absolutely no justice," Shifra Hoffman heads a group called the Victims of Arab Terror, told Berger. "We see that those who murder or wound will be released knowing that there's no penalty to pay. It will only increase the terror."

    In Tulkarem, the released prisoners flashed victory signs, praised God and kissed the ground as they got off Israeli buses. The men boarded Palestinian buses, which took them about 100 yards to their cheering relatives. Young girls threw candy as the prisoners were reunited with family members.

    Prisoners herded into cars at the Erez crossing were cheered by crowds as drivers honked and waved Palestinian flags out of windows.

    Sami Abu Nahal, 42, from the Beach refugee camp in Gaza, said he was looking forward to meeting his 4-year-old daughter for the first time, but still had mixed feelings about his release.

    "I can smell the freedom. I am happy to see my daughter, Wala," said Abu Nahal, who spent four years in prison. "But at the same time I'm feeling sad because I left friends and brothers inside the Israeli jails."

    In the West Bank town of Nablus, known as a stronghold of Palestinian militants, thousands of people celebrated the release, including dozens of masked men who fired guns into the air. Some 85 of the prisoners freed Thursday were from the Nablus area.

  • At the Tarkumiya checkpoint near the West Bank city of Hebron, a replica of Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock mosque greeted the prisoners.

    The fate of the prisoners held by Israel is extremely emotional for Palestinians, and Abbas has attempted to make their release a priority. With an estimated 8,000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons, most Palestinian families have friends or relatives behind bars.

    The Palestinians want Israel to release all of the prisoners, while Israel refuses to free anyone involved in attacks on Israelis. The Palestinians have also complained that in the past Israel only freed prisoners who had committed minor infractions and were near the end of their sentences.

    Some of the prisoners released Thursday had been charged with attempted shootings, preparing explosives and assisting attempted murder, but most were sitting in prison for nonviolent offenses.

    Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian official, welcomed Thursday's release, but said Israel must go further.

    "I think it's making 400 Palestinian families happy today and I hope that we can also make happy the other 8,000 families who are concerned about their loved ones," Erekat said.

    Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed at a February summit with Abbas in Egypt to release 900 prisoners. Shortly after the summit, the first 500 were freed. Thursday's release completed the pledge.

    Israel also agreed under the truce to turn over five West Bank towns to Palestinian security control. But so far, it has only turned over two of the towns, accusing Palestinian forces of failing to act against militants in areas under their control.

    Also Thursday, Israel and the Palestinians said their leaders would meet on June 21. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will discuss the release of more prisoners at the upcoming summit, Erekat said.

    Musa Kuran, a prisoner freed in Tulkarem on Thursday, said he is optimistic that Abbas will free the rest of his comrades.

    "Life was very hard in prison. I'm sad that my friends are still inside. But I trust Abu Mazen will free them, the way he freed me. He's smart enough to get them out," Kuran said.