Israel frees Palestinian prisoner after hunger-strike deal

RAMALLAH, West Bank Mon Dec 23, 2013 4:04pm EST

Palestinians celebrate the release of Palestinian prisoner Samer al-Issawi in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Issawiya December 23, 2013. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

Palestinians celebrate the release of Palestinian prisoner Samer al-Issawi in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Issawiya December 23, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Ammar Awad

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RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Israel freed a Palestinian prisoner from jail on Monday, completing a deal agreed earlier this year in exchange for him halting a lengthy hunger strike that almost killed him.

Samer al-Issawi stopped his eight-month, on-off fast last April. His confinement had stoked weeks of protests in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Israel convicted Issawi of shooting at an Israeli bus in 2002 but released him in 2011 along with more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, whom Islamist militants had held hostage in the Gaza Strip.

Issawi was re-arrested in July 2012 after Israel said he violated the terms of his release by crossing from his native East Jerusalem to the West Bank, and ordered him to return to jail until 2029 - his original release date.

Citing security concerns, Israel restricts Palestinian movement between East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Israel captured both areas in the 1967 Middle East war, annexing East Jerusalem in a move that has not won international recognition.

"I wanted to protect the rights of Palestinian prisoners and deter Israel from re-arresting more Palestinians who had been freed in the Shalit deal," Issawi told Palestinian reporters who waited for him outside the gates of Shata prison in northern Israel.

He was driven from the prison to a brief welcoming ceremony near Jericho in the West Bank, and from there to his home in Issawiya, a village adjoining East Jerusalem.

Israel holds some 5,000 Palestinians it accuses of committing or planning violence against it. It has recently agreed to release 104 under U.S.-brokered understandings that paved the way for the revival of peace talks.

Half that number has already been freed, another 26 inmates are set to go free before the end of the year, and a final group of 26 will be released later.

(Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Ruth Pitchford)

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