Israel Frees 26 Jailed Arabs

israel prisoner release
After several weeks of delay, Israel on Wednesday released 26 Palestinian security prisoners as part of the latest interim peace accord with the Palestinians.

Seeing their relatives step off buses, Palestinians wailed loudly, danced and shot weapons into the air. "With blood and soul we will redeem the prisoners!" they chanted, as they bore the freed men on their shoulders.

It was the first time Israel freed Palestinians who had killed Israelis or tourists as part of a negotiated peace process release, and the arrival of the prisoners also drew a few Jewish settlers to one of the release sites, Beituniya, a village near the West Bank town of Ramallah.

"Death to terrorists!" shouted the small group of settlers. "Death to settlers!" countered the Palestinians.

In Hebron, Mahmoud Kawasmeh, sentenced to life 29 years ago for killing two Italian tourists, did not recognize many members of the family he left behind.

"I always dreamed I would see my father a free man," said an emotional Jamil Kawasmeh. Men in the crowd hoisted the elder Kawasmeh, 70, and suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, onto their shoulders.

Asked if he had any regrets about the deaths of the tourists, Kawasmeh the longest serving Palestinian jailed in Israel said, "No, I would do it again."

There were similar scenes in Gaza at the arrival of Maher Abu Of, the first killer of an Israeli freed in a peace process release. He served 19 years for killing taxi driver Yehezkeel Mizrahi.

Abu Of's sister, Leila, leaped onto the bus and smothered her brother in kisses. Abu Of, 37, appeared gaunt and pale.

"With my seven sisters, we will search for a bride for him," Leila said.

It was the third and final release according to the latest accord. There are almost 2,000 prisoners still in Israeli jails; their fate is tied to a final agreement the sides hope will be in place by September.

"My feeling cannot be complete without the release of the rest of my colleagues," Abu Of said, a sentiment almost every prisoner expressed upon his return. In the two earlier releases, 350 Palestinians convicted of anti-Israel offenses were set free.

Buses carrying the inmates left two prisons in the southern Negev Desert and the coastal city of Ashkelon in the afternoon. The releases had been held up for several hours by a Supreme Court appeal filed by relatives of Israelis killed in terror attacks. In the end, the justices refused to stop the releases.

The Palestinians complained tat many of those freed Wednesday have only a few months left to serve. They had demanded that a much larger number of prisoners be released, including those sentenced to long terms.

"This is very little," said Palestinian Cabinet Minister Ziad Abu Zayyad. "It's too late."

The disappointment came despite Israel's backing down on releasing killers oIsraelis, and its pledge to free six inmates from east Jerusalem soon, despite initial concerns that such a move would undercut Israeli claims to sovereignty over all of the city.