Israel released 165 Palestinian security prisoners Monday morning as a goodwill gesture to Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak for the release of Azzam Azzam.
Fatah candidate for Palestinian Authority chairmanship Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) welcomed the release of the prisoners on Monday, but demanded a more substantial gesture on Israel's part. Some 7,000 Palestinian prisoners are currently being held in Israeli prisons, and it has been a focal point of Abbas' election campaign to demand their release.
In a speech kicking off his campaign on Saturday, Abbas demanded that Israel release all Palestinian prisoners, including Marwan Barghouti, a promising uprising leader.
The prisoners were bussed from Prison Service prisons throughout the country to four checkpoints in the West Bank and one in Gaza, from there they will be transferred to Palestinian buses and - with IDF accompaniment - taken to city entrances, where they will be released.
The prisoners reached the Jalame checkpoint in Samaria, checkpoint 700 near the entrance to Tulkarm, the Beituniya checkpoint outside of Ramallah, Tarkumiya not far from Hebron, and the Erez checkpoint in northern Gaza towards mid-morning.
Sources in the IDF said the army was prepared for all possible scenarios including violence and mass gatherings to celebrate the prisoners' return. Last week the Israel Prison Service published the list of 165 names that were divided into two categories. The first list includes 113 Palestinians who were arrested since the outbreak of the Al Aksa intifada and primarily charged with membership in a forbidden organization, dealing in weapons, attempted shooting and bomb attacks, preparing bombs, sheltering fugitives and perpetrating stone-throwing and firebomb attacks.
The second list includes 52 Palestinians who entered Israel illegally and were sentenced to eight to two months in prison.
The Prison Service stipulated that the lists were drawn up in accordance with a government decision made on December 12 and were approved by the government a week later.
All the candidates slated for release conform to the criteria that they "have no blood on their hands" and were involved in attacks that resulted in the wounding or murder of Israeli citizens.
Thirty names of prisoners were dropped from the original list because they did not meet the criteria and belonged to extremist Islamic groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.