Israel freed 224 Palestinian prisoners on Monday, nearly a week later than planned, in a move it described as a goodwill gesture to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. "We hope these releases will be seen as an important confidence-building measure designed to strengthen the trust and the confidence in the (peace) negotiations," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Since last year, Regev said, according to Reuters, Israel has released some 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. The prisoners freed on Monday are a fraction of the 11,000 Palestinians held by Israel. Their release was originally due to take place last week, in the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. Israeli officials said Palestinians sought a delay for logistical reasons. Palestinian officials denied requesting any postponement, saying the delay was due to Israeli legal procedures.
The release was further delayed for several hours on Monday as Israel's high court heard an appeal from right-wing Israelis. But the prisoners began being freed at about noon local time (1000 GMT), most of them at the Ofer Prison near the West Bank town of Ramallah, said Yaron Zamir of Israel's prison services. A smaller group was bused from a prison in the southern Israeli town of Ashkelon to the Gaza Strip.
Most of the prisoners would be sent to the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where Abbas's government is based. Eighteen were expected to go to Gaza Strip.