IMAGE: FREED PRISONER HUGGED BY RELATIVES
Abbas Momani  /  AFP - Getty Images
A Palestinian freed by Israel is hugged by relatives Monday upon arrival at the Palestinian Authority headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
updated 10/1/2007 1:06:07 PM ET 2007-10-01T17:06:07

Dozens of newly released Palestinian prisoners descended from buses and kissed the asphalt at this West Bank checkpoint after Israel freed them in a gesture to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ahead of a U.S.-sponsored Mideast peace conference this fall.

The prisoners arrived at the army's Beituniya checkpoint, near the West Bank city of Ramallah, after a two-hour journey from the Ketziot prison in southern Israel. The prisoners, 57 in all, got off Israeli buses, kissed the ground then boarded a Palestinian bus. An ecstatic crowd of waiting relatives clapped and waved Palestinian flags.

Israel also was expected to free 30 Palestinian prisoners in the Gaza Strip on Monday, but the release was delayed until Tuesday, and it was not immediately clear whether all of them would be freed. Officials gave no explanation for the delay.

As the prisoners headed home, Israel said it was moving forward with plans to open a new West Bank police headquarters, despite U.S. concerns that development in the area harms prospects for establishing a viable Palestinian state. The Palestinians accused Israel of undermining new peace efforts.

Most of the prisoners slated for release Monday are from the West Bank, which is controlled by Abbas and his government of moderates. The others are residents of Gaza, which has been ruled by Hamas since June, when they defeated the forces of Abbas' Fatah movement and took control of the coastal territory.

None are Hamas members
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced the prisoner release — the second since July — last month as part of his strategy to support Abbas in his power struggle with Hamas. The prisoners are mostly members of Fatah, along with several who belong to smaller Palestinian factions. None belong to Hamas.

Israel is holding around 11,000 Palestinian prisoners, and their release is a central Palestinian demand. While many of those released Monday were serving time for militant activity, none was convicted of killing or injuring Israelis.

Among those released was 66-year-old Rakad Salim, who had served five years of an eight-year sentence for distributing millions of dollars from the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. His relatives and supporters held up pictures of Saddam and kissed and hugged Salim after he got off the bus.

"I feel that I am a new man, enjoying my freedom," said a smiling 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 lay a wreath at the tomb of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Shooting at border
In Gaza, Israeli troops shot and injured a 14-year-old who was waiting with hundreds of Palestinians at a Gaza Strip crossing for their relatives to be released, medics and witnesses said.

The teenager was moderately injured, the medics said. The Israeli troops began firing from watchtowers at the Erez crossing when the Palestinians began approaching a no-man's zone separating Gaza from Israel, the witnesses said.

The military said troops opened fire at Palestinians who approached army positions at Erez and ignored warning shots. The soldiers aimed for their legs to avoid fatal injuries, the military said.

Hamas called Monday's prisoner release insignificant.

"We congratulate the prisoners," said Mohammed al-Mudhoun a senior aid 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."

A group of Palestinians with relatives in Israeli prisons gathered at the Red Cross offices in Gaza City, holding photographs of their imprisoned loved ones.

One mother, Fatima Kaisi, said her 24-year-old son Mohammed is serving a 250-year sentence for his involvement in the radical militant group Islamic Jihad.

"I'm happy for the mothers who are getting their sons back today, but the leaders have to know that there are hundreds of mothers and families still waiting to meet with their loved ones," Kaisi said.

As Israel keeps up its military pressure on militants in Gaza, Olmert is slated to meet with Abbas on Wednesday. The two leaders are attempting to draft a joint vision of a peace deal that will be presented at a peace conference expected to be held in November in Annapolis, Maryland.

Israeli troops killed two Hamas militants in Gaza on Monday in a nighttime gunbattle, Hamas announced. The Israeli military said troops shot two armed Palestinian militants who attacked troops inside Gaza not far from the Israeli border. One soldier was lightly wounded by gunfire, the military said.

So far, the two sides haven't agreed on how specific the joint document should be. The Palestinians want a detailed framework agreement, while Israel wants a statement that is shorter and more vague.

U.S. pressure over developing area
But even with peace efforts gaining steam, Israeli officials said they were determined to open the new West Bank police headquarters in an area just east of Jerusalem known as E-1.

The U.S. has blocked past Israeli efforts to develop the 5 square mile area. Development plans envision 3,500 homes, several hotels and an industrial park there, but have been frozen under U.S. pressure.

The E-1 project, if completed, would effectively cut off eastern Jerusalem, the Palestinians' hoped-for capital, from the West Bank hinterland. Palestinians and Israeli human rights groups accuse Israel of trying to consolidate control over West Bank land east of Jerusalem, with the help of a massive separation barrier and new highways.

Israel's public security minister, Avi Dichter, told the Haaretz daily that police officers would move to the new building by the end of the year. Haaretz quoted Dichter as saying Israel was not seeking U.S. consent for the move.

Dichter's spokesman, Yehuda Maman, that "what is planned is what will happen, we aren't talking about `if.'"

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat warned that Israel is undermining fledgling peace efforts. In November, the U.S. is to host a Mideast conference in hopes of relaunching negotiations on final Israeli-Palestinian deal.

"I believe the continuation of such policies, creating facts on the ground, is undermining efforts that are being exerted to show that peace is possible," Erekat said.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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