- The Washington Times - Monday, February 21, 2005

JERUSALEM — Palestinians gave a jubilant welcome to 500 prisoners freed yesterday by Israel as part of a truce, but many complained that uprising leaders were not among those released. Hamas militants appeared unmasked in a West Bank city, their leader shouting that there can be no peace “as long as there is a single prisoner in Israeli jails.”

The decision to release the prisoners led to criticism by some Israelis that the move could reignite the bloodshed that has beset the region for more than four years.

“It’s true that many of them don’t have blood on their hands, but it’s not because they didn’t try ” it’s because they didn’t succeed,” Menachem Landau, a former commander in Israel’s Shin Bet security service, told Army Radio.

Relatives of terror victims appealed unsuccessfully to Israel’s Supreme Court to block the release, listing Israelis who have been killed over the years by freed Palestinian prisoners. The prisoners released yesterday were not directly involved in violence, officials said.

Palestinians also faced internal political turmoil. Leaders suspended a session of parliament when it became clear that a new Cabinet, presented by Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, would not win a vote of confidence.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has been struggling with Mr. Qureia over power issues, including the makeup of the Cabinet, and the crisis may be a way for Mr. Abbas to force the prime minister to resign.

Mr. Abbas has made the prisoners a key political and emotional issue and a measure of his effectiveness. His brief term as prime minister in 2003 collapsed largely over his pique at Israel’s refusal to free veteran prisoners and uprising leaders.

A senior Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the release was a goodwill gesture to strengthen Mr. Abbas.

Return of Palestinians from exile is another major sticking point in efforts to reach a settlement. Mr. Abbas, in an interview published Sunday, said the Palestinian authorities may be willing to accept that not all refugees can return to their former homes under a peace settlement with Israel.

“Where the refugees return to will be the subject of negotiations,” he told the German weekly Der Spiegel. “We are ready to discuss it.”

Millions of Palestinian refugees live in camps in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, and want Israel to implement U.N. Resolution 194, which says they have the right to return to their former homes. Israel refuses to admit them, fearing that it would mean Jews no longer would be in the majority.

In Brussels, President Bush laid out a checklist for Israel and Palestinians to achieve peace with two independent states, including an insistence that the Palestinians get contiguous land in the West Bank.

“A state on scattered territories will not work,” Mr. Bush said during a speech. He said he hoped Mr. Abbas will lay out a plan for reform at a conference in London next month hosted by British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

All over the West Bank and Gaza, tearful scenes of joy played out yesterday. But again, many Palestinians not directly involved in the release were disgruntled.

Although 400 more are to be released in the coming days, about 7,000 Palestinians would still be behind Israeli bars, including leaders of the uprising that began September 2000. Palestinians complained that most of the freed prisoners were small-time offenders or near the end of their terms.

“There will be no peace as long as there is a single prisoner in Israeli jails,” Hassan Yousef, West Bank leader of the Islamic militant group Hamas, shouted through a bullhorn.

In Nablus, a crowd of 15,000 welcomed 100 prisoners. Dozens of gunmen fired in the air, among them Hamas members appearing with their weapons in public and unmasked for the first time since Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed to an unofficial truce this month.

Near the West Bank town of Jenin, a 30-year-old bystander was killed by celebratory fire and four persons were wounded.

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