As Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir began talks with U.S. officials in Washington, the army released about 450 Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture at the start of the Moslem holy month of Ramadan.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said the timing of the mass release Wednesday was coincidental and not intended to influence Shamir's talks this week with President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker."They were released Thursday to convey to the residents that we take into consideration their religious holidays, namely Ramadan," Rabin said. "And in the hope they will understand it is preferable to keep law and order, primarily for their own good and also for the good of the general situation in the territories."
The United States has called on Israel to take steps to ease tension in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and to facilitate a dialogue with the Palestinians. Last year, about 400 prisoners were released for Ramadan, the army said.
Col. Ra'anan Gissin said the mass release also was a message to the Palestinians that if the level of violence continued to decrease, more prisoners would be released and more security measures eased.
"The formula is very simple," he said. "No more violence, no more prisoners."
Prisoners emerged from buses in the West Bank village of Beit Jala and in Gaza City where they met with reporters before being transported to their communities.
In all, 228 West Bank prisoners and 224 Gazans were set free, most from the notorious Ketziot detention camp in the Negev Desert. About one third were adminstrative detainees and the rest were awaiting trial or had been convicted of participating in the intifada, Arabic for uprising.
Administrative detainees interviewed doubted their release was a goodwill gesture and said their terms were due to expire within a few days.
The army said 6,650 Palestinians remain imprisoned.
In Gaza City, prisoners, some as young as 14, knelt on the ground after emerging from buses and thanked God they were free.
Four buses carried 106 administrative detainees from Ketziot to Beit Jala, where an official from the army's Civil Administration urged them to refrain from violence. and said only dialogue and mutual understanding could bring about a solution.
Most of the freed prisoners said they would continue to work for the Palestinian cause.