Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Israel released 199 Palestinian "security prisoners" Thursday, beginning its fulfillment of commitments in the newly signed Sharm el-Sheik peace agreement.
The prisoners were taken on four buses to the Palestinian cities of Ramallah, Hebron and Gaza, where they were reunited with family members in a heroes' welcome.
Each prisoner had to agree prior to his release that he would not carry out further terrorist attacks. The release of 200 prisoners had been planned, but one requested to stay in jail.
A special Committee on Prisoner Release established the criteria for those to be freed, and the Justice Ministry confirmed yesterday that all the prisoners did meet the criteria.
According to a Justice Ministry communique, no prisoners would be released who had killed Israelis or belonged to Hamas, Islamic Jihad or other groups which rejected peace talks with Israel. Other guidelines included not releasing prisoners who committed offenses after the September 1993 signing of the Oslo peace accords and not releasing Jerusalem residents.
Israeli press reports said that some 150 of the prisoners released had been convicted of killing fellow Palestinians, whom they had suspected of collaborating with Israel. Another 17 had been involved in attacks on Israelis, none of which proved fatal.
Victims of terrorist attacks had asked to see a list of the prisoners before their release, but the committee said the list would be published only after the fact.
The issue of the prisoner release had threatened to derail the signing of the new Sharm el-Sheik peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians during US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's visit last week. But last minute intervention by the US and Egypt helped forge the agreement, signed by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.
Israel's release of the prisoners, whom the Palestinians regard as political prisoners and freedom fighters, is the first step in Israel's fulfillment of the terms of the new agreement. Israel is due to release another 150 prisoners later as part of the peace plan.
Meanwhile, Israeli security forces imposed a closure on the territories ahead of this weekend's Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana, preventing Palestinians from crossing into Israel. Israeli authorities fear Hamas or Islamic Jihad might try to launch terrorist attacks during the pre-holiday period, when Jewish shoppers are out en masse.
While it is not unusual for a closure to be imposed on the territories, this latest closure started a day earlier than usual.