prisoner release 224.88.
(photo credit: AP)
Thirty security prisoners from the Gaza Strip are due to be freed today after President Shimon Peres delayed commuting their sentences, waiting until Monday night to sign off on the move.
The prisoners in question, nearly a third of 87 approved for release by the cabinet, are due to leave Ketziot Prison in southern Israel Tuesday morning.
Ever since the IDF left the Gaza Strip in 2005, the president's authorization has been required for the early release of Gazans from Israeli jails.
The President's Office gave no explanation as to why Peres signed the papers late, which meant that the Gazan prisoners could not join the 57 detainees from the West Bank who returned to their homes on Monday.
However, security officials said IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi sent Peres a letter saying it was "immoral" to release prisoners to Gaza while terrorists there are still holding Cpl. Gilad Schalit, captured in a cross-border raid in June of last year.
Peres spokesman Yoram Dori refused to comment on the defense officials' report or discuss the delay.
The cabinet had approved the release of 87 prisoners as a gesture to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas timed to coincide with Ramadan.
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, and none of the prisoners being set free is classified as having "blood on their hands," meaning they were not convicted of killing Israelis.
The prisoners set free on Monday arrived at the Betuniya checkpoint, south of Ramallah, after a two-hour journey from Ketziot Prison. They got off Israeli buses, kissed the ground, and boarded a Palestinian bus as an ecstatic crowd of waiting relatives clapped and waved Palestinian flags.
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 Iraqi president Saddam Hussein to the families of suicide bombers. Salim's relatives and supporters held up pictures of Hussein 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."
After crossing into the West Bank, the prisoners traveled to the Mukata security compound in Ramallah, where they laid a wreath at Yasser Arafat's tomb.
AP contributed to this report.