Israel Releases Nearly 200 Palestinians

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Israel on Monday freed nearly 200 jailed Palestinians -- including a militant mastermind from the 1970s who became the Jewish state's longest-serving Palestinian prisoner -- in a goodwill gesture made hours before U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's latest peace mission to the region.

The prisoners received a hero's welcome upon their return to the West Bank, where thousands of people joined a celebration rally at the headquarters of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

"We will not rest until the prisoners are freed and the jails are empty," Abbas told the cheering crowd.

The prisoners arrived in Ramallah after being released at an Israeli checkpoint near Jerusalem. The prisoners, some waving black-and-white checkered keffiyeh headdresses as they stepped off Israeli buses, kissed the ground before boarding Palestinian vehicles.

Among the 198 Palestinians freed was Said al-Atba, who served more than 30 years of a life sentence for masterminding a 1977 market bombing that killed one woman and wounded dozens others in central Israel. Al-Atba, 57, was the longest serving inmate held by Israel and he is widely seen by the Palestinian public as a symbol of all the prisoners.

His brother, Hisham, came from Saudi Arabia, where he works, to greet him. "I feel great, great joy," he said. "We had lost hope that my brother would be released because he's been in prison for 32 years."

Al-Atba's sister, Raida, said she had prepared her brother's favorite food, stuffed vine leaves and zucchini.

Israel said the release was a gesture meant to bolster Abbas and give a boost to the slow-moving peace talks with his government. "It's not easy for Israel to release prisoners. Some of the individuals being released today are guilty of direct involvement in the murder of innocent civilians," government spokesman Mark Regev said. "But we understand the importance of the prisoner issue for Palestinian society. ... We believe this action can support the negotiation process and create goodwill."