(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
As Israel completed its release of 86 security prisoners on Tuesday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak voiced support for Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi's protest of the move.
Barak's office released a statement saying Ashkenazi's decision to send a letter to President Shimon Peres expressing reservations concerning the early release of security prisoners to the Gaza Strip was a "legitimate step."
Channel 10 reported on Tuesday night that Olmert's associates were angry at Barak for backing Ashkenazi in his dispute with the prime minister.
They reportedly accused him of trying to score political points against Olmert and of leaking to the press Ashkenazi's letter, which caused tension between them.
The Likud released a statement supporting Ashkenazi and bashing Barak.
"Barak is behaving hypocritically by supporting releasing the terrorists in the cabinet vote and now trying to lead the public astray by ostensibly backing the chief of General Staff," a Likud spokeswoman said.
Lawmakers on the Left lashed out at Ashkenazi, while others on the Right praised him.
National Union MK Uri Ariel said Ashkenazi had "returned sanity to the public agenda" and that "every release of terrorists invites the next terrorist attack." Meretz MK Ran Cohen said releasing prisoners was a political issue and the army chief should not have interfered. He said the government had the right to release prisoners to advance the diplomatic process.
Ta'al MK Ahmed Tibi criticized Ashkenazi for calling the release of terrorists from Gaza immoral. He said it was holding prisoners without trial and in poor conditions that was immoral.
The IDF freed 29 prisoners back to the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, following the release of 57 in the West Bank a day earlier.
At the Erez border crossing to northern Gaza, dozens of ecstatic Palestinians awaited the arrival of their newly released relatives. Many waved yellow Fatah flags and sang Fatah songs.
Their occasion was briefly marred when dozens of people rushed toward the ex-prisoners as they came through the crossing. IDF soldiers opened fire, wounding two people, including a photographer for the Reuters news agency, Palestinian medical officials said.
The military confirmed that soldiers had fired in the air, and then at people's legs, to disperse a large crowd that approached the border.
The shooting did little to dampen the joyous atmosphere.
Four girls with Palestinian flags draped on their shoulders jumped excitedly among dozens of relatives who greeted the prisoners at Erez. Elated families hoisted the men on their shoulders, waved Palestinian flags and shouted "God is Great."
Abdel Hadi Hassanain, who was serving time for membership in Fatah's armed wing, the Aksa Martyrs Brigades, smiled broadly as a crowd gathered around him, slapping him on the back and hugging him, and his father tried to push through the throng. Hassanain grabbed his father, kissing him on both cheeks and then twice on the forehead as the elder man broke down with emotion.
"We're very happy to meet our parents, but the happiness will not be complete until all the others have been released," Hassanain said.
Israel holds about 11,000 Palestinian security prisoners. Because so many families have relatives in Israeli jails, securing their release is a high priority in Palestinian society. Israel said none of the prisoners released this week were convicted in deadly attacks on Israelis.
The Gazans were originally scheduled to be freed on Monday, but the release was delayed due to reservations by Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi.
Security officials said Ashkenazi had sent Peres a letter saying it was "unethical" to release Gazans held by Israel while Hamas-linked gunmen in Gaza continued to hold Cpl. Gilad Schalit.