RAMALLAH, West Bank – Tearful friends and relatives, some cheering or waving flags, welcomed 429 Palestinian prisoners after their early release by Israel on Monday in a gesture meant to strengthen moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
"There's nothing better than freedom," said Salem al-Sakka after he reached Gaza and kissed his mother. Al-Sakka had served four years of an 11-year term, and said Abbas must do everything he can to win the release of the thousands still imprisoned by Israel.
Most of the prisoners were dropped off at Abbas' headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah. Uncharacteristically, Abbas wasn't present for the celebrations, visiting Jordan instead as part of a tour of the Arab world following last week's U.S.-hosted Mideast conference in Annapolis, Md.
At the conference, Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pledged to try to reach a peace deal in 2008.
As buses carrying the prisoners rolled into Abbas' walled compound, relatives jumped up to kiss them. Some prisoners climbed out of windows, impatient to greet their families.
Tearful reunions played out again and again: Prisoners embraced weeping parents, sometimes abashed at their mothers' ululating. Some were hoisted on shoulders.
Abdel Raouf Injas, 52, was waiting for his 31-year-old son Khaled, whose 12-year sentence was cut in half. Injas said he wanted to get Khaled married as quickly as possible, and said his son planned to study for a master's degree at a West Bank university.
Injas said he had two more sons in prison. "I'm feeling good, but it's incomplete," he said of the release. Parents of some prisoners said they were eager to make up for lost time.
Israel is holding about 9,000 prisoners. Their freedom is a central Palestinian demand, and Monday's release — the third since July — was intended to strengthen Abbas in his struggle against Islamic Hamas rivals who control the Gaza Strip by showing Palestinians that moderation pays.
The vast majority of the freed prisoners were supporters of Abbas' Fatah movement.
Abbas' government had asked that 2,000 prisoners be freed, but Israel refused.
Including the prisoners released Monday, about 770 Palestinians will have been freed since July, a number the Palestinians find too small.
Mark Regev, an Israeli government spokesman, said the release was meant to strengthen Abbas. "The peace process cannot only be summits and words, but has to be reinforced by practical measures on the ground," he said.
While Israelis and Palestinians prepared to resume formal peace talks next week, Olmert told his Kadima Party faction — as he told Cabinet a day earlier — that Israel did not regard the December 2008 peace deal target date as a deadline.
Still, he said he hoped "to reach an agreement — if possible — as soon as possible."
In other developments Monday:
— Three Hamas fighters were killed in clashes with Israeli troops in northern Gaza, the group said. The military said troops saw gunmen approach the security fence that separates Gaza from Israel and opened fire.
— In Gaza, gas stations remained closed after owners refused to accept the reduced amounts of fuel offered by Dor Alon, the Israeli fuel company that supplies Gaza. Gas station owners blamed an Israeli decision to cut back on fuel supplies, but Dor Alon said Palestinians have not paid their bills.
— Israel held up the transfer of 25 Russian armored vehicles to Palestinian police in the West Bank, because the Palestinians want to have machine guns mounted on them, security officials said. Olmert approved the shipment two weeks ago over the objections of his own security forces. Israeli officials said the armored vehicles were not supposed to include machine guns.
— Egypt opened its border with Gaza to let in hundreds of Palestinian pilgrims headed for Saudi Arabia — the first time Palestinians have been allowed to cross directly into Egypt since Hamas militants seized control of Gaza in June. Some 700 pilgrims entered Egypt after receiving visas from Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina. But the travelers hit a snag when Egyptian riot police stopped the group after passengers broke a crossing gate. Egyptian officials said they expected the group to continue their journey later Monday.
— In Israel, the Palestinian assassin of an ultranationalist Israeli Cabinet minister was sentenced to life in prison, and given 100 more years for bombing and shooting attacks on other Israelis. Hamdi Quran gunned down Rehavam Zeevi, Israel's tourism minister, in a Jerusalem hotel in October 2001. Quran had been in Palestinian custody until last year, when he was seized by Israeli forces.