RAMALLAH, West Bank – Israel released 429 Palestinian prisoners Monday to try to bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and build on momentum from last week’s Mideast peace conference in Annapolis, Md. Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in the talks they would aim to reach a peace deal in 2008.
Meanwhile, Abbas closed 92 charities linked to Hamas, officials said Monday, part of an intensifying West Bank crackdown on the Islamic militants who seized the Gaza Strip and are challenging renewed peace talks with Israel.
Joy mixed with tears as buses carrying the prisoners, most from Abbas’ Fatah movement, rolled into his walled headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Many had been arrested at the height of the Palestinian uprising several years ago, and were struggling with the transition to a new era of negotiations.
Ex-gunman Tareq Abu Lail, 24, said he hoped for peace, but doubted he would see success. Sentenced to eight years, he got out after three and said he was proud of his role in the uprising.
His father Yousef, 49, disagreed.
“The uprising is dead,” he said. “We hope Annapolis will be the start of peace.”
The release, the largest in three years, was meant to boost Abbas, who is trying to win over a public skeptical about his peace effort and beat back challenges by Hamas.
Since Hamas’ violent takeover of Gaza in June, Abbas has moved systematically against the Islamic militants in the West Bank. His security forces have arrested hundreds of Hamas supporters.
On Monday, Abbas’ information minister, Riad Malki, said the government in the West Bank dissolved 92 Hamas-linked charity committees.
The committees were formed by prominent leaders under the supervision of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The committees collect money and distribute it to the poor. They were ordered closed two weeks ago, but the announcement was only made Monday.
Malki said the committees were infiltrated by Hamas activists in previous years of Fatah rule.
Today, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad was scheduled to announce the formation of 11 charity committees to take the place of those dissolved. In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the closure of the charities will lead to hunger in the West Bank. “It’s an attempt to weaken Hamas, but the Palestinian citizen will pay the price, because they benefit from these committees.”