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Israel frees Palestinian prisoners

Palestinians believe move falls short

From Jerrold Kessel

Prisoners smile as they leave Ketziot jail in southern Israel.
Prisoners smile as they leave Ketziot jail in southern Israel.

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CNN's Jerrold Kessel reports on Israel's release of Palestinian prisoners.
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GALILEE, Israel (CNN) -- Israel released 339 Palestinians from two detention centers on Wednesday in what it calls a "goodwill gesture," but Palestinians said it was not enough.

Freed Palestinian prisoners were taken from Megiddo in northern Israel and Ketziot in the south to five checkpoints along the Israeli border with the West Bank and Gaza, where they were released.

Prisoners, who could be seen waving and smiling as they traveled to freedom, were dropped at the Erez checkpoint in Gaza and the West Bank checkpoints at Tulkarem, Beitunya, Salem and Tarqumiya. (Gallery: Palestinian prisoners released)

Although the U.S.-backed road map to peace, which both sides are following, does not specifically mention prisoner releases, Israel is required to take measures to ease the lives of Palestinians.

In Gaza, there have been regular demonstrations calling for the release of prisoners, and militant groups attached the demand to their cease-fire announcements made in June. (Full story)

Palestinians disagree with the list of prisoners that Israel drew up for release -- saying many are prisoners who are at or near the end of their sentences -- and that the release should not have been conducted unilaterally. They also believe that far more of the up to 7,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails should be released.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that "there are no big names nor are there prisoners who were involved in extremely serious crimes."

Haaretz also said the list compiled indicated Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was wary of freeing people who had killed Israelis without commitments from the Palestinian Authority to crack down on militant groups.

About 100 prisoners on the Israeli list of 440, who were not released Wednesday, are to be freed in the coming days.

A Palestinian statement said: "This is a unilateral move without any coordination through the joint Israeli-Palestinian prisoners committee."

And Nabil Abu-Rdeinah, an adviser to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, said all prisoners should be released.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas canceled a Wednesday meeting with Sharon because of a disagreement over the release, Palestinian officials said.

A source in Sharon's office confirmed that the meeting was postponed because the Palestinians disagreed with the prisoner list.

"Israel still intends to release the prisoners as a goodwill gesture to advance the road map," the source said.

Abbas met Wednesday with leaders of the radical Islamic groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza to consolidate the continuing cease-fire the groups have declared. On Tuesday, Abbas met with members of Arafat's Fatah movement in Ramallah, Palestinian sources said.

The radical groups, including the militant wing of Fatah -- the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades -- have each conducted attacks on Israeli civilians, as well as against military targets.

CNN's Jerrold Kessel contributed to this report.

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