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500 Palestinian prisoners set free to bolster Israeli-Palestinian truce

TULKAREM, West Bank—Israel released 500 Palestinian prisoners Monday in an effort to bolster an informal truce announced by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas at their Feb. 8 summit.

While Palestinian leaders complained the release didn't go far enough, for many Palestinians, including mother Zahra Abu Zant, it was a feast of joy.

"Nader! Nader!" she shouted to her 17-year-old son over the din of ululating Palestinian women, who broke through a cordon of Israeli soldiers at the edge of this Palestinian border town to greet the male prisoners arriving by the busload. Nader saw her and grinned, waving madly before crawling out of a bus window, jumping to the ground and running into her waiting arms.

"Thank you, God," she wept, as they kissed each other and then the dirt. It was one of many such joyous reunions Monday at five Israeli-Palestinian border crossings in the largest release of Palestinian prisoners since 1996.

In Brussels, Belgium, President Bush lent his support to efforts aimed at improving Israeli-Palestinian relations.

"Our greatest opportunity and our immediate goal is peace in the Middle East," Bush said in the Belgian capital, his first stop in a trip aimed at improving U.S. relations with Europe. "We're determined to see two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security."

Bush added that he would send Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to a meeting in London next month designed to help the Palestinian Authority—which is struggling to appoint a new Cabinet—reform its financial practices and security agencies.

The prisoner release came after a series of Israeli policy moves, including a Cabinet decision Sunday to proceed with a withdrawal of troops and Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip this summer.

Abbas and his Palestinian Authority expressed disappointment at Sharon's refusal to release more of the 8,000 Palestinians being held in Israeli jails. Abbas needs to secure the release of long-serving prisoners to convince Palestinian militant factions that negotiations with Israel, rather than violence, are paying off.

Sharon, for his part, has been careful to avoid stirring up domestic opposition by not releasing Palestinian prisoners linked to terror attacks.

In Ramallah, Palestinian legislators launched the most serious challenge yet to Abbas, who was elected Palestinian leader in early January. A vote to ratify the Cabinet of Abbas' appointed prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, was delayed until Tuesday as legislators threatened to vote down the nominations.

Legislators accused Qureia, whom Abbas has given free rein to shape the Cabinet, of including too many members of the late Yasser Arafat's old guard and of not going far enough to include new faces, especially ones not linked to corruption and who would help push forward stalled Palestinian political reforms.

Sharon has pledged to release 400 more prisoners in the coming months. A joint Israeli-Palestinian ministerial committee will decide whom to put on that list.

"My happiness is fraught with sadness in leaving thousands of ... prisoners behind," said Iyad Bassam al Qarawi, 25, who served six months in an Israeli jail before being allowed to return home to Gaza City on Monday. "We expected many more would be released than this."

He and the other former prisoners were required to sign a pledge not to engage in any violence against Israel, although many of those interviewed Monday claimed the documents were in Hebrew and that they didn't know what they were signing.

Abu Zant said she would understand if her son Nader, who was sent to jail in May 2003 for throwing rocks at Israelis, chose to act out against Israel again.

"It's a battle for our nation," she said. "As we need my son, we also need the land."

In what appeared to be a sign of protest by the Palestinian leadership, only local officials came to greet prisoners. There were no celebrations planned for the 169 prisoners released at the Israeli border next to Tulkarem, only bus rides home, said Tulkarem's governor, Izzeddin Sharif.

"This first step should be followed by other steps, more releases of prisoners. We are only at the beginning," Sharif said. The local commander of the Palestinian Security Services, Col. Maher Dweikat, was more pessimistic.

Israelis "are not grateful for this step" of an informal cease-fire, said Dweikat, who has eight officers imprisoned in Israel. "They will not offer us anything more."

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Mahmoud Habboush contributed to this report from Gaza City.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MIDEAST

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