Commander of the militant Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Zakaria Zubaidi greets the released Palestinian prisoners
Ammar Awad  /  Reuters
Zakaria Zubaidi, center, commander of the militant Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, greets released Palestinian prisoners at the West Bank city of Jenin on Monday.
updated 2/21/2005 5:06:06 PM ET 2005-02-21T22:06:06

Israel freed 500 Palestinian prisoners in a good-will gesture Monday, a day after the government gave final approval to a pullout from Gaza and a revised route of the West Bank separation barrier that would encompass at least 6 percent of land claimed by the Palestinians for a future state.

With the historic Cabinet vote, Israel began charting its final borders, bypassing negotiations and angering the Palestinians. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the decision to leave Gaza and four settlements in the northern West Bank was the hardest he ever made but would ensure a better future for Israel.

Sharon also signed an order saying Israeli civilians would have to leave the areas slated for evacuation by July 20. Those remaining would be removed by force over a period of two months. Settler leaders have pledged not to leave voluntarily, and security officials are bracing for violent confrontations.

In the West Bank, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas won the backing of his Fatah movement for a new 24-member Cabinet after a stormy debate, clearing the way for approval of the new ministers by parliament later Monday.

The release of Palestinian prisoners was one of the gestures Sharon agreed to at his summit with Abbas earlier this month in Egypt.

Cheering crowds
Convoys of buses carrying shackled inmates left Israel’s desert prison camp of Ketziot around dawn Monday, dropping prisoners off at the edges of the West Bank and Gaza Strip just before noon, military officials said. They were greeted by cheering crowds of relatives, who reached out to touch and hug them.

Suhail Abu Madala, 35, spent four years in prison and had three more years to serve when he was set free Monday.

“I cannot believe that I’m smelling the air of freedom, that I will see my family,” Abu Madala said, choking back tears after being reunited with brothers and sisters and his 12-year-old son, Mohammed. “Nothing can describe my joy and my feelings.

“But I left behind me brothers in jail who need to be released,” added Abu Madala, who had worked as a policeman before his arrest in the West Bank. “If were are talking about a new era, prisoners should be freed. We hope that peace will prevail between the two nations.

Those freed had not been involved in attacks on Israelis.

More releases promised
Israel has promised to release 400 more prisoners within the next three months. A joint Israeli-Palestinian ministerial committee will decide which prisoners will be released in the second round. Israel is resisting Palestinian demands to free those serving long terms, including for attacks on Israelis.

With Sunday’s Cabinet vote, an Israeli government agreed for the first time since capturing the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Mideast war to dismantle some of the dozens of Jewish settlements it has built there.

However, in approving the route of the West Bank barrier, Israel acted unilaterally on what was to be a key issue in peace talks with the Palestinians, and signaled it will keep a chunk of prime West Bank land close to Jerusalem, including two large settlement blocs, Maaleh Adumim and Gush Etzion.

Several Cabinet ministers acknowledged that while the barrier was ostensibly built as a security shield, its route would help determine Israel’s final borders with a Palestinian state. Sharon has said he wants to keep large West Bank settlement blocs in any future peace deal with the Palestinians.

Abbas has demanded that construction of the barrier be stopped.

Sharon, a former settler patron and the key proponent of Jewish settlement expansion during most of his political career, said leaving Gaza and parts of the West Bank was difficult. “In all my years of service I have faced hundreds, if not thousands of decisions, some of them matters of life or death, but the decision on the disengagement plan was for me the hardest of all,” he said late Sunday.

The Gaza withdrawal passed 17-5. The Cabinet must still approve each of four evacuation stages, but even opponents said those votes are just a formality.

Even so, Jewish settler leaders said they have not given up. Pinchas Wallerstein, one of the leaders of the council of Jewish settlements, called on supporters to begin “an aggressive and strong struggle” but not engage in violence.

Near unanimous
In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri called the planned Israeli pullout “a result of the heroic resistance of our people.”

The vote for the barrier route was almost unanimous. Several Cabinet ministers acknowledged that the barrier has implications far beyond the original security concept. “The route of the fence is significant in terms of future negotiations over Israel’s borders,” said minister Tzipi Livni.

Army planners had to reroute the barrier closer to the old cease-fire line that delineates the West Bank after the Israeli Supreme Court ordered changes to reduce hardships on Palestinians.

The new route leaves 6 percent to 7 percent of the territory in Israeli hands, said Vice Premier Shimon Peres, about one-third of what the original route would have taken.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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