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Jerusalem – Israel completed release of 86 Palestinian prisoners on Tuesday, a gesture meant to improve prospects for a U.S.-sponsored Mideast peace conference later this fall.
The prisoner release came a day before Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were to begin working out their joint vision of a peace deal at a meeting in Jerusalem. They hope to present a framework agreement to the international community at the November summit.
Israel sent 29 Palestinians back to the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, following the release of 57 prisoners in the West Bank a day earlier.
Israel hopes the release will strengthen the moderate Abbas in his fierce rivalry with the Hamas militant group, which seized control of the Gaza Strip in June. Most of the prisoners who were freed are members of Abbas’ Fatah movement. None belonged to Hamas.
In apparent internal Palestinian violence on Tuesday, four Hamas police officers were killed when a car exploded near the Hamas marine police headquarters in Gaza City, Hamas and hospital officials said. After initially blaming Israel, Hamas backed away, saying it was investigating. The Israeli military said it was not involved.
At the Erez border crossing between Israel and northern Gaza, dozens of ecstatic Palestinians awaited the arrival of their newly released relatives. Many waved yellow Fatah flags and sang Fatah songs.
Their occasion was briefly marred when dozens of people rushed toward the freed prisoners as they came through the crossing. Israeli soldiers opened fire, wounding two people, including a photographer for the Reuters news agency, Palestinian medical officials said.
The military confirmed that soldiers fired in the air, and then at people’s legs, to disperse a large crowd that approached the border.
The shooting did little to dampen the joyous atmosphere.
Four girls with Palestinian flags draped around their shoulders jumped excitedly among dozens of relatives who greeted the prisoners at Erez. Elated families hoisted the prisoners on their shoulders, waved Palestinian flags and shouted “God is Great.”
Abdel Hadi Hassanain, who was serving time for membership in Fatah’s armed wing, smiled widely as a crowd gathered around him, slapping him on the back and hugging him, as his father tried to push through the throng. Hassanain grabbed his father, kissing him on both cheeks and then twice on the forehead as the elder man broke down with emotion.
“We’re very happy to meet our parents, but the happiness will not be complete until all others have been released,” Hassanain said.
Israel holds about 11,000 Palestinian prisoners. Because so many families have relatives in Israeli jails, securing their release is a high priority in Palestinian society. Israel said none of the prisoners released this week were convicted in deadly attacks on Israelis.
The Gazans were originally scheduled to be freed on Monday, but the release was delayed due to reservations by Israel’s army chief, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi.
Security officials said Ashkenazi sent President Shimon Peres a letter saying it was “unethical” to release Gazans held by Israel while Hamas-linked militants in Gaza continue to hold an Israeli soldier captured more than a year ago.
Peres must authorize sentence commutations, and Israeli officials said he did not sign off on the Gazans’ release until late Monday.
Israel approved this week’s prisoner release, which coincides with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, to help build trust ahead of the peace conference, expected to take place in November in Annapolis, Maryland.
The Israeli and Palestinian leaders have pledged to work on a document setting out their joint vision for a final peace deal, which they hope to present at the conference.
After months of sounding each other out, Olmert and Abbas were expected to hold their first working meeting Wednesday, at Olmert’s official residence in Jerusalem, to discuss the document.
However, the two sides are far apart on how specific the joint document should be, underscoring the conflicting expectations and the considerable potential for failure. The Palestinians want to take a detailed framework agreement to the conference, while Israel wants a shorter and vaguer statement.
Since the Hamas takeover of Gaza, Abbas has ruled out of his West Bank stronghold, while Hamas remains in control of Gaza.
In Gaza City, the Hamas-controlled Interior Ministry announced that Hamas was uniting its militia, known as the Executive Force, with Gaza’s police force, formerly affiliated with the coastal territory’s Fatah rulers.
The step was seen as another move in the Islamic group’s consolidation of control over the coastal territory.
Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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