RAMALLAH, West Bank – Israel released 224 Palestinian prisoners Monday in a gesture to moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and jubilant detainees waving Palestinian flags jumped on the roof of one of the buses carrying them to freedom.
Separately, Israel expelled an arriving U.N. human rights envoy after accusing him of bias against the Jewish state. The envoy, Richard Falk, has compared Israel to Nazi Germany and accused the Jewish state of crimes against humanity because of its treatment of Palestinians.
Israel holds more than 8,000 Palestinians, and their fate is an emotionally charged issue. Most Palestinians have had loved ones in prison and view the release of detainees as a test of Israel's willingness to make peace. Many Israelis balk at the idea of freeing Palestinians involved in violence.
But the scene Monday brimmed with joy. One of the prisoners, Abdel Nasser Hussein, 28, was arrested at dawn on his wedding day 30 months ago. His fiancee, Alaa Issa, showed up smartly dressed in a matching coat and head scarf Monday, bearing a bouquet of red roses. They embraced.
"It's indescribable happiness," said Hussein, a former member of the Palestinian security forces. "You can't put a price on freedom, and my hope that is that the president will keep working for my colleagues to be released."
After exchanging rings, they walked arm-in-arm, their friends and family clapping and singing a traditional wedding song. They plan to marry in two weeks.
The Israeli prisons service said he was convicted of membership in an illegal organization, possession of weapons, ammunition and explosives and opening fire. Hussein's brother said he was arrested in June 2006 on charges of firing at Israeli soldiers during raids in Ramallah.
Abbas personally greeted each detainee at his headquarters in Ramallah and told them he would work to win the release of the remaining prisoners.
During the past year of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which ended without breakthroughs, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert authorized the release of small groups of prisoners to shore up support for Abbas. However, many Palestinians consider the releases too small to be significant.
The Palestinian president's rival, the Islamic militant Hamas, has been holding an Israeli soldier since 2006 and is trying to win freedom for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners as part of a swap.
The expulsion of Falk came after the U.N. envoy was stopped at Ben-Gurion international airport after landing on Sunday. He spent the night in the airport and was put on a plane to the U.S. on Monday morning, said Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the U.N.'s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Falk "does not try to advance human rights, but instead comes with his conclusions ready and those conclusions are of course extreme, methodic criticism of Israel and only of Israel," said Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
Falk, a former professor at Princeton University who wrote an introduction to a book that questioned the Bush administration's explanation for the Sept. 11 attacks, could not be reached for comment Monday. An Interior Ministry spokeswoman, Sabine Haddad, said he had been told beforehand that he would be turned away if he arrived in Israel.
Last week Falk called on the U.N. to pressure Israel to lift its blockade of the Gaza Strip, which he called "a crime against humanity."