RAMALLAH, West Bank, Israel (Reuters) - Israel released more than 250 Palestinian prisoners on Friday as part of a U.S.-backed deal to bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after Hamas Islamists took over the Gaza Strip last month.
The prisoners, who were mostly members of Abbas’s secular Fatah faction, arrived in the West Bank city of Ramallah where they were greeted by Abbas and reunited with family members.
“You cannot imagine how happy we are that you came back to us,” Abbas told a crowd of about 3,000 at the presidential compound. “But our happiness is missing something because we want all 11,000 prisoners to return to their families.”
On Thursday, the Quartet of international powers mediating in the Middle East reaffirmed its support for Abbas and for U.S.-sponsored talks to try to revive a peace process that all but died after Hamas won parliamentary elections last year, promping crippling economic sanctions on the Palestinians.
At Ramallah, many of the prisoners released waved Palestinian flags as they stepped off buses at the end of their journey from the Kitsiyot prison in southern Israel.
“I‘m very happy, it’s a great day for me,” said 18-year-old Shadi Barawshi, who was released two years into a five year sentence. His mother, crying, said, “I can’t believe he’s standing in front of me now.”
Muhannad Jaradat, who spent 18 years in jail, hugged his mother and said: “I will not leave you, mother.”
Hamas, shunned by Israel and Western powers for refusing to renounce violence against the Jewish state, routed Fatah forces in Gaza last month, prompting Abbas to dismiss the government it led and to install a new administration in the larger West Bank.
The schism between the two Palestinian territories has left hopes for establishing a state in disarray. But an eagerness in the West to marginalize Hamas, which has friendly ties in Iran and Syria, has secured an end to sanctions on Abbas’s new government as well as a number of concessions from Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has described his decision to free 256 low-security prisoners, most of them with relatively short sentences left to run, as a goodwill gesture to bolster Abbas’s new government.
An Israeli Prisons Service spokesman said that the prisoners released had at least one year left to their sentence. Olmert said he would not release prisoners with “blood on their hands”. More than 10,000 Palestinian prisoners are still held by Israel.
Apart from the release of prisoners, Israel has agreed to stop hunting dozens of militants loyal mainly to Fatah groups like the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, in return for promises that they have handed in weapons and joined formal security forces.
The United Nations, European Union and Russia, meeting in Lisbon with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as the Quartet, threw their weight behind U.S. President George W. Bush’s new plan to revive peace moves and pledged support for Palestinians, including those under Hamas rule in Gaza.
“Just imagine for a moment if this process were moving forward again, just think how much hope there would be,” said Tony Blair, the former British prime minister named last month as the Quartet’s envoy to the Middle East.
“I hope I can offer something in bringing about a solution to this issue that is of such fundamental importance to the world,” he added.
Blair will visit Jerusalem and Ramallah next week and report back to the Quartet on his strategy of reforms for the Palestinians in September, a statement from the meeting said.
Bush announced this week he intends to hold a Middle East peace conference. Rice will visit the Middle East shortly to try to boost support for the conference.
It is years since Israel and the Palestinians last discussed issues at the heart of the conflict -- borders of a Palestinian state, the return of refugees and the status of Jerusalem.