PR Ploy Or Goodwill Gesture?

Newly-released Palestinian prisoner Hamdi Sha'at hugs his sister Sanaa during an impromptu celebration, upon arriving to his house after his release from an Israeli prison, at the Khan Younis refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip , Wednesday Aug. 6, 2003. Israel freed more than 300 Palestinian prisoners Wednesday, delivering them into the arms of waiting families in near-simultaneous releases in the West Bank and Gaza
AP
Israel freed more than 300 Palestinian prisoners Wednesday, delivering them into the arms of waiting families in near-simultaneous releases across the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But Palestinians widely dismissed Israel's move as an empty gesture that fell far short of the mass release they argue would help push forward the "road map" peace plan, whose implementation has been mired in delays and disagreements.

Four buses, escorted by Israeli police, arrived at Tarqumiya checkpoint in the southern West Bank, one of five handover points. Prisoners leaned from windows before the buses crossed into the Palestinian areas, where they were greeted by whistles and cheers from hundreds of waiting relatives. Other groups were released at Tulkarem, Beitunya and Salem crossings in the West Bank.

CBS News reports the first freed Palestinian flashed the victory sign at relatives waiting at a checkpoint just outside the West Bank town of Beitunya and smiled broadly as he stepped off an Israeli bus that brought him from prison. — Others kissed the ground, watched closely by armed Israeli soldiers, before climbing onto Palestinian buses that would take them home.

Jubilant families hugged and kissed their released relatives shortly after they arrived across the checkpoint into Palestinian lands.

Hussein Abu Eid, 32, who served 13 years of a 15-year sentence for membership in the militant group Islamic Jihad, kissed and embraced his father for several minutes. "I miss you, my father. I wish my mother were still alive to see me and bring happiness to her heart," he said.

Israel has agreed to free about 440 prisoners as a goodwill gesture. Most were being released Wednesday, but about 100 detainees who were held for criminal charges as opposed to militant involvement will be freed later. The Palestinians have rejected the release as inadequate and want thousands freed.

Several dozen of the freed prisoners belonged to the Islamic militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Palestinian sources said. The head of the Palestinian Prisoners' Club in the West Bank, Khaleda Jarar, said almost half the prisoners being freed were administrative detainees held without charge. Of the remaining prisoners serving sentences, she said, 80 percent were in the final year of their terms.

"It is really ridiculous to have all this celebration," said Awad Allah Mishel, freed after serving all but two weeks of a three-year sentence for membership in Hamas. Making a point repeated throughout the day by Palestinians, he said, "They are releasing those who have almost finished their sentences."

The prisoners have become a major sticking point to progress on the U.S.-backed road map peace plan. Israel is holding about 7,700 prisoners — most accused of involvement in terrorism — and has ruled out a mass release, especially as long as the militant groups remain armed.

The Palestinian Authority said that as a protest it was not organizing official welcome ceremonies for those freed.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has called the release a "deceit," and his spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeineh said Wednesday that Israel "should release all the prisoners." Palestinian premier Mahmoud Abbas called off a planned Wednesday meeting with Israeli premier Ariel Sharon mostly because of the prisoner dispute.

Israeli officials have noted that Israel was not obligated to carry out any prisoners releases under the road map, and Sharon faced pressure from his government coalition and other quarters not to release suspected militants.

Families of Israeli victims of Palestinian attacks had appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court to block the release. The court turned down the appeals.

A small group of other Israelis who lost loved ones in Palestinian attacks demonstrated in support of the prisoner release Wednesday at the Tulkarem checkpoint, holding a sign saying "both sides have blood on their hands."

Although deadly violence is markedly down since Palestinian militant groups announced a temporary cease-fire on June 29, implementation of the road map has been halting and both sides have skirted key obligations: Israel has not frozen construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza or dismantled most of the 100-odd unauthorized settlement outposts, and its troops still control West Bank cities; The Palestinians have not disarmed and dismantled militant groups.

CBS News Correspondent Kimberly Dozier reports some Palestinian groups are taking advantage of the cease-fire to train fighters for future battles.

CBS' Dozier visited a camp run by the armed offshoot of Arafat's Fatah Party, where young would-be fighters are trained as gunmen and bomb makers. One militant leader said eh would continue fighting on any Palestinian territory as long as Israeli soldiers continue to occupy the area.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian government says taking on the fighters could lead to civil war. It is relying on a separate truce with them, to keep the peace.

Abbas, meanwhile, met late Tuesday in Gaza with the heads of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who are under pressure to extend the three-month moratorium on attacks against Israelis they declared in June.

On Tuesday legislator Saeb Erekat, a leading spokesman for the Palestinians, called for U.S. involvement to avert "the development of a major crisis" over the road map disputes.

Early Wednesday, Israeli forces scuffled with settlers while removing a small unauthorized settlement outpost in the divided West Bank city of Hebron, the army and police said. Ten settlers were arrested for resisting the evacuation, police spokesman Doron Ben-Amo said.