Scores of Palestinian prisoners on Monday were freed by Israeli in a gesture to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ahead of a U.S.-sponsored Mideast peace conference. All in all, 57 prisoners headed home. They arrived at the Beituniya checkpoint, near the West Bank city of Ramallah, after a two-hour journey from the "Ketziot" prison in southern Israel, the AP reported.
Israel was also expected to release 30 other prisoners to the Gaza Strip on Monday, but the release was delayed without explanation. The delay was apparently tied to questions over the status of the government in the Gaza Strip, controlled by Hamas since its takeover earlier this year with Abbas' Fatah movement.
Among those freed was 66-year-old Rakad Salim, who served five years of an eight-year sentence for distributing millions of dollars from the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to Palestinian martyrs and their families. "I feel that I am a new man, enjoying my freedom," said Salim. "This release is not enough, but we hope it is the beginning of emptying all the (Israeli) prisons."
The prisoners later traveled to a security compound in Ramallah, where they laid a wreath at the tomb of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
In Gaza, Israeli troops shot and wounded a 14-year-old who was waiting with hundreds of Palestinians at the Erez crossing for their relatives to be freed, medics and witnesses said. The Israeli soldiers started firing from watchtowers when the Palestinians began approaching a no man's zone separating Gaza from Israel, the witnesses said.
Hamas called Monday's prisoner release insignificant. "We congratulate the prisoners," said Mohammed al-Mudhoun a senior aide to Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of the Hamas government in Gaza. "We consider this ... a humiliation for the leadership in Ramallah that considers this humble number a great achievement."