RAMALLAH, West Bank – Israel released more than 250 Palestinian prisoners Friday in a gesture to embattled President Mahmoud Abbas, who pledged not to rest until Israel's jails were emptied of its thousands of Palestinians.
Several thousand chanting, clapping Palestinians greeted the prisoners as their buses rolled into Abbas' headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Prisoners were hoisted onto the shoulders of dancing supporters, before they performed noon prayers in a large, open-sided tent.
"This is the beginning," said Abbas, wearing a black-and-white checkered baseball cap, a symbol of Palestinian nationalism. "Efforts must continue. Our work must continue until every prisoner returns to the his home," he said.
Israeli and officials of Abbas' government said they hoped the release marked a new chapter in relations, following seven years of bloody fighting.
"All the suffering, all the pain is gone," said released prisoner Iyad Milhem, 30, as he rode on one of the buses. "But we still hope for the release of all the other prisoners."
Most of those freed were from Abbas' Fatah movement. Prominent among them was 61-year-old Abdel Rahim Malouh, second-in-command in a small PLO faction, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which assassinated an Israeli Cabinet minister in 2001.
Friday's release began shortly after daybreak when the shackled prisoners left the Ketziot prison camp in southern Israel and boarded buses with darkened windows that took them to the West Bank. At an Israeli military checkpoint in the West Bank, the prisoners got off the buses, some kissing the ground, and boarded Palestinian buses that took them to Ramallah.
Israel had agreed to release 256 prisoners, but one was held back for further security checks, said Eli Gadizon, of the Israel Prisons' Service. All the inmates were required to sign an undertaking not to engage in anti-Israel violence.
Amjad Namura, 24, Hebron, who was freed after serving half of a four-year sentence, said he was happy to comply with any agreement signed off by Abbas.
"We are with the decisions of the president no matter what. Whatever Fatah tells me to do I will do it," he said.
Israel holds about 9,200 Palestinian prisoners, most of whom were arrested during the past seven years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. Almost every Palestinian family has had a member in Israeli jails at some point, and the fate of the prisoners is one of the most emotionally charged issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For Palestinians, the prisoners are heroes in the struggle for statehood, and large-scale prisoner releases are seen as an effective way for Israel to back Abbas in his confrontation with the Islamic militants.
However, Israel refuses to free inmates serving time for wounding or killing Israelis, in part for fear of a public outcry. None of the prisoners being freed Friday was directly involved in attacks on Israelis, according to Israeli officials.
Earlier this week, families of victims of Palestinian attacks tried to stop the release with a Supreme Court appeal, but the court backed the government.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said the prisoner release is part of a package of goodwill gestures that is to give new momentum to stalled peace efforts.
"We're hopeful that the combined steps by the Israeli government and the Palestinian government can bring about a new period of cooperation and dialogue, that we have turned the corner on the negative dynamic," Regev said.
However, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said Israel needs to do more to improve the atmosphere. "Your policy is a policy of small change. You do a little here, a little there," he told the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot in an interview published Friday.
"Israel is a large, strong country. Israel can allow itself to be more bold," he said.
The releases came a day after a top PLO body, the Central Council, endorsed Abbas' call for early presidential and legislative elections.
Abbas hopes to sideline Hamas with new elections, but his high-stakes gamble is also bound to set off new confrontations with the Islamic militants and cement the West Bank-Gaza divide.
Hamas, which won parliament elections last year, immediately threatened to derail a new vote.
Abbas and Hamas have been wrangling over political legitimacy since the Gaza takeover. Elected separately in 2005 as Palestinian Authority president, Abbas has fired the Hamas-led government and installed a West Bank-based caretaker Cabinet of moderates — measures denounced by Hamas as unconstitutional.