prisoner v sign 224.88.
(photo credit: AP)
One after another, over 400 Palestinian men descended from colorfully painted Israeli tour buses, most of them taking a few steps, then dropping to their knees and rocking forward to kiss the ground of the "neutral zone" at the Betuniya checkpoint.
Gathering up their belongings, usually the contents of a few colored plastic shopping bags, the men - some pushed forward by Israel Prisons Service escorts - walked up the stairs of blue and white buses, parked facing North - away from Jerusalem and towards Ramallah.
But the beds vacated by the internationally vaunted prisoner release Monday are likely to be filled again by the first week of 2008, according to data received by The Jerusalem Post.
A Central Command officer told the Post that 400-500 terror operatives are arrested each month by IDF forces operating in the West Bank, creating a monthly average of arrests that is close to the number of prisoners released Monday.
A total of 429 Palestinian prisoners were released Monday - 408 were transported to the West Bank and crossed to PA-controlled territory at Betuniya, and 21 were released at the Erez Crossing, a transfer terminal on the edge of the northern Gaza Strip.
Of the 429, 273 were arrested during the peak of the second intifada between 2001-2005, but approximately 10% - or 43 prisoners - were arrested earlier this year. One of the prisoners released - Ziad Darj - was arrested less than three months ago and sentenced to seven months for membership in an illegal organization, while Jibran Hamad, sentenced to 10 months for membership in an illegal organization and carrying a weapon or explosive device - was arrested two days before the last prisoner release, in July of this year.
The release, a gesture meant to bolster Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, was originally planned to take place ahead of last week's Annapolis conference but for various reasons, including a rumored request by Abbas himself, it was postponed.
Delays notwithstanding, the Palestinian leader shared joint credit as the man of the hour as the Palestinian buses drove across the freight terminal toward the small crowd of family members awaiting the prisoners on the Palestinian side of the checkpoint. In at least one bus, posters of Abbas and his predecessor, Yassir Arafat were apparently waiting for the prisoners as they boarded.
Some of the prisoners, freshly decked out in kaffiyeh-checked scarves and Palestinian-flag baseball caps, worked to unfurl the posters, pressing both Abbas and Arafat's smiling faces against the windshields of the busses as they headed toward Ramallah.
Crowds gathered along Ramallah's streets as the buses rolled toward the Mukhata - Abbas's headquarters and the compound that has become a symbol of Fatah rule in the West Bank. Although the release was the largest in three years and despite the fact that most of the newly released men were Fatah operatives, Abbas was not, as many had hoped, present in the welcome festivities held at the Mukata.
Yaakov Katz and AP contributed to this report.