RAMALLAH, West Bank — Yusef Nahleh was 15 years old when he was sent to an Israeli prison after using a rudimentary pistol to take potshots at a Jewish settlement on a hillside near his West Bank refugee camp.
On Friday, after serving less than half of his four-year sentence, the stout Palestinian teenager with faint acne was set free. For the first time in more than two years, Israel opened its cell doors and granted early freedom to Yusef and more than 250 other Palestinian prisoners.
"I feel like I own the world," said Yusef's mother, Basmah, who rushed to embrace her son at a jubilant welcome-home ceremony near the grave of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. "It's like I have received my soul."
The prisoner release is part of a stepped-up Israeli initiative to shore up pro-Western Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in his standoff with hard-line Hamas leaders who control the Gaza Strip.
Stunned by the Hamas takeover, Israel and the United States are finally doing things they'd long promised Abbas so he could have political ammunition to counter the militant group.
They've provided the new Palestinian Authority Cabinet with millions of dollars that had been frozen while the government was dominated by Hamas, which remains politically isolated because of its refusal to explicitly accept Israel as a Middle East nation.
Israel has granted amnesty to more than 150 Palestinian militants allied with Abbas who've agreed to put down their weapons. Finally, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his Cabinet approved the prisoner release. Most of the freed prisoners were from the president's Fatah political party; none was from Hamas.
"If the Israeli government and the Palestinian government can continue taking these measures, we can turn the corner and leave the negative dynamic of the last two years and return to a positive one," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
But it's not clear that this will do much to help Abbas, who's long been criticized as well-meaning but weak and indecisive.
"It changes the subject for a while but it doesn't address the fundamental strategic challenges Abbas has," said Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a national-security research center in Washington. "I don't see how this does any more than begin to set him in the right direction."
Abbas and his aides praised the release as a positive step and said they hoped it would lead to more significant moves to stir up the stagnant political process.
"We feel there is now some momentum in the air," said Abbas' chief of staff, Rafik Husseini. "There is now a window of opportunity, but it may close very quickly."
In his ongoing struggle for control of Palestinian politics, Abbas has been working with the United States and Israel to isolate Hamas in the Gaza Strip since the Islamist forces routed Fatah fighters last month. Abbas countered by dissolving the Hamas-led coalition government and installing the new pro-Western Cabinet. Hamas, which took control of the Palestinian Authority last year in free elections, has denounced Abbas as a collaborator and a traitor.
Israel and the United States are trying to give Abbas enough tangible successes — such as the prisoner release — that he can persuade Palestinian voters to return Fatah to power in early elections.
But it isn't clear that Hamas would allow elections to take place in Gaza or whether Israel and the United States would allow the militant group to take part without disarming.
"It's hard to imagine Israel and the United States would go down the road of repeating what many saw as their mistake before," Alterman said. "Second, it's hard for me to imagine Fatah really cleaning house and becoming an effective electoral machine. And it's hard to imagine Hamas risking everything and giving up the advantage and disarming in order to run for elections at this point."
The mood at the presidential compound Friday was jubilant but tempered.
There are still nearly 10,000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons. Of the 250 freed Friday, two-thirds had been scheduled to be released within the next 30 months. Only 10 had more than six years on their sentences. And, since Israel announced its intention to free these 250 prisoners, its army has arrested or detained at least 475 more, according to United Nations statistics.
Yusef's father, Salah, noted that Israeli soldiers had arrested one of his cousins and three other young men two nights ago in the Jalazone refugee camp, which they call home.
"One person from Jalazone was released and four more are arrested," he said.
"This is their formula."
All afternoon Friday, Yusef smoked cigarettes in the family's living room while he greeted a steady flow of relatives and friends, many of whom had spent time in Israeli prisons themselves.
Yusef passed his 17 months in prison learning from Fatah leaders, making beaded bracelets for his family and verbally sparring with Hamas prisoners. Like the other prisoners, he agreed to sign an Israeli form vowing not to attack Israel after he was freed.
A question about what the teenager would do now to help build a Palestinian state sparked a conversation-stopping debate.
"Suicide attacks," said one of his friends seated nearby.
Yusef pondered the question and his friend's response.
"Military attacks," the teenager said before his father chastised him for making such a claim in front of an American journalist.
"You are shooting yourself in the head," the father said.
Yusef sat thinking about his father's words.
"Political struggle," Yusef said. "I would like to see all those who are still in jail set free."
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this article from Jerusalem.)