by Peter Hirschberg
(IPS) JERUSALEM --
was meant to be a powerful confidence-building measure. But the release of 334 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails Aug. 6 achieved the opposite: it left Palestinians bitter over the small number who were freed and over who had been freed.
On the other side, the release left the Israelis calling the Palestinians ungrateful, and grumbling that they habitually belittle every goodwill gesture made by the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
"Every confidence-building step we take is immediately forgotten by the Palestinians," said Gideon Meir, deputy director-general of the Foreign Ministry. "It's a pattern with them. They want to put the onus on us all the time."
Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo called the releases "worthless and meaningless," and accused Israel of taking "a theatrical step to appease Washington."
The release of the prisoners was meant to be one of the ultimate goodwill gestures that would begin to repair the shattered trust between Israelis and Palestinians, bolster struggling Palestinian premier Mahmoud Abbas, and help fire up a U.S.-backed peace initiative that has begun to drag.
Israel gave the media free access to the five drop-off points -- four in the West Bank and one in the Gaza Strip -- where the prisoners were taken by bus and freed. With the cameras rolling as ecstatic families greeted newly released sons and fathers, the world saw the pictures the Israeli government had hoped it would.
Up to a point. The Palestinian Authority refused to play along, announcing it would not hold any official welcoming ceremonies. There were no spontaneous celebrations in the territories either.
The releases of prisoners is not a part of the road map, but the Palestinians were hoping the first group to be released would be much larger, and would include longer-serving prisoners. They were annoyed that many of those released had sentences that expire soon.
Of the 334 prisoners freed, 31 were to have completed their terms by the end of the month, 128 by the end of the year. The Palestinians ultimately want all of the remaining 6,000 prisoners in Israeli jails freed.
Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat called the release a "fraud." Leaders of the radical Hamas movement said the failure to release long-serving prisoners jeopardized the truce declared June 29 by militant groups. That truce has dramatically reduced violence.
The prisoner issue has deepened distrust, says Mahdi Abdul-Hadi who heads the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs in East Jerusalem. "On the one hand Israel releases prisoners, but at the same time they are arresting others," he told IPS. Dozens of Palestinians have been arrested in the West Bank since the truce took hold.
The inclusion of criminals in the list of those to be released -- 99 will go free in the coming days -- was seen as an insult to Palestinians, for whom the prisoners are heroic figures at the forefront of the national liberation struggle. "You can take these (criminal) ones home with you," Palestinian minister for prisoner affairs Hisham Abdel Razeq told an Israeli reporter.
Among those prisoners freed August 6 were members of the radical Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements. But they did not include prisoners with "blood on their hands" -- the term used by Israelis for prisoners involved in deadly attacks. Asked if he expected Sharon to ultimately release prisoners in this category, Abdel Razeq retorted: "What do the Israelis have on their hands? Cream?"
Some Israeli opposition leaders on the left argue that the government can afford to open the jail doors much wider. It needs to, they say, if Sharon's goal is to strengthen Abbas at the expense of Arafat, who the Israeli government and the U.S. have dismissed as a legitimate negotiating partner.
But deputy prime minister Ehud Olmert said the government was not prepared to make overly generous and unreciprocated gestures to the Palestinians. Israel, he said, wanted the Palestinian Authority first to fulfil its obligation under the road map to crush militant groups.
Few were surprised by Abbas's announcement that he was cancelling his meeting with Sharon scheduled for the day the prisoners were released. He could hardly afford to be spotted in Sharon's company just after Arafat had accused the Israeli leader of making a mockery of the prisoner releases.
But the embattled Palestinian premier will have been encouraged by a recent poll conducted by Bir Zeit University in the West Bank in cooperation with the Washington-based International Republican Institute. The poll showed that 61 percent of respondents rated his performance as good or fair, while only 28 percent said it was weak.
Despite their disillusionment with the road map, 74 percent of Palestinians polled still support the truce declared by militant groups.
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