Israel releases Palestinian women prisoners

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Waving clenched fists and “V” for victory signs, 31 Palestinian women prisoners were freed from Israeli prisons Tuesday after the Supreme Court rejected a final petition to block their release.
Hundreds of friends and family members mobbed the women as they arrived early Wednesday in the autonomous West Bank town of Ramallah, where they were greeted by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
“I’m proud to be on free Palestinian land!” shouted Abir Wehaibi, 27, as she climbed off a bus and was surrounded by ecstatic relatives.
Wehaibi was convicted of heading a militant group that attacked Israeli soldiers and settlers. She served 4 years of a life sentence.
The release of the women — several of whom were involved in deadly attacks on Israelis — brought Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu severe criticism from hardliners, including his own supporters.
Several dozen protesters carrying signs reading “Freed to kill again” and “Kill Jews for peace” marched outside Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem during the day. Three of the demonstrators carried a coffin with a sign reading “Victims of peace.”
Arafat called the releases a good sign for peace with Israel.
“No doubt this will help the relationship between the two peoples,” he told reporters in Ramallah.
The releases came after a year of delays and wrangling and a long day of waiting and confusion.
Seven women had left the prison earlier Tuesday — but one was brought back by her jailers because of the Supreme Court petition and three others insisted on being returned to prison in solidarity with her. Finally, after 11 p.m., all the remaining prisoners, their hands bound with plastic cuffs, climbed onto a bus to make the trip to freedom.
The petition to block the release was filed by a group representing families of Israeli terror victims, which argued that some of the women were not on the original list authorized by the government.
The court had thrown out another appeal by the group on Monday.
Aisha Abu-Hazem, who served two years of a 12-year sentence for stabbing a policeman, expressed mixed feelings about her release.
“I’m not happy that I left while there are still prisoners in the prison — and I mean all prisoners, including the men,” she said after shaking hands with Arafat in Ramallah.
About 3,000 Palestinian men remain in Israeli jails, most on charges of anti-Israeli violence. Arafat said the release of the Palestinian men was high on his agenda for peace negotiations.
Earlier in the day, Palestinian women in traditional village costumes danced in a jubilant circle after the first prisoner — Lamia Marouf — was released.
Marouf, 31, was driven in a white van from Sharon Prison to Ben Gurion International Airport. Marouf, who served 10 years of a life term for membership in a group that kidnapped and killed an Israeli soldier, was deported to Brazil, where she has dual citizenship and her daughter lives.
Marouf rented and drove the car used in the kidnapping. Her husband, also a member of the group, remains imprisoned in Israel.
The releases Tuesday were among the promises in the peace accords with the Palestinians signed by Netanyahu’s dovish predecessors. As opposition leader, Netanyahu fought bitterly against the agreements, but after his May election victory he said he would honor Israel’s commitments to the Palestinians.
Initially, the women were set to be freed in the fall of 1995, but Israel’s president and an army commander at the time refused to pardon five women involved in killing Israelis — and the others remained behind bars in a show of solidarity.