Israel freed about 800 Palestinian prisoners - many of them Muslim militants - on Wednesday, giving a boost to Yasser Arafat ahead of next week’s Palestinian elections.
The release means that 7,000 Palestinians have been freed from Israeli jails since Israel and the PLO signed their first peace pact in September 1993.
Another 400 are to be released by Monday, leaving about 2,800 Palestinians still in Israeli jails. Their fate will be decided when talks on the final status of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Jerusalem begin in May.
Some of the prisoners released Wednesday flashed victory signs out the windows of the buses that carried them to freedom, their wrists bound with white plastic cords. Relatives greeted them at several dropoff sites in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
About half the released prisoners are members of the Muslim militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which have carried out a string of suicide attacks in Israel in the past two years. They were required to sign pledges of non-violence before their release, Israeli officials said.
Even though their release was the result of the peace accord, many Islamic Jihad and Hamas followers said Wednesday they remained opposed to reconciliation with Israel.
“According to Islam, this agreement is not legal,” said Daoud Kawasmeh, a Hamas activist who served 12 months of a 15-month sentence for membership in an illegal organization. “We don’t support this peace. It’s an illusion.”
Still, some of the detainees indicated they were ready to challenge Arafat in the political arena rather than with violence.
“In the future, we will have a political dialogue with the Palestinian Authority. I hope it will not be violent,” said Diab Ahmidad, 30, one of three dozen Islamic Jihad followers freed from the Ketziot tent prison camp in the Negev Desert.
At one of the dropoff points, outside the West Bank village of Idna, several candidates for the Jan. 20 elections mingled with the prisoners’ relatives and friends, shaking hands and handing out campaign stickers.
The releases are seen as a boost for Arafat, who is running for president of the Palestinian Authority.
Arafat’s standing was eroded last week when the chief Hamas bomb-maker, responsible for seven deadly attacks in Israel, was assassinated in PLO-ruled territory in an operation widely attributed to Israel. The killing angered many Palestinians who felt that Arafat was not standing up to Israel.