Vehicles containing 198 Palestinians freed from Israeli prisons crossed into the Palestinian territories on Monday to cheers and whistles from a watching crowd, under an Israeli prisoner release undertaken as a goodwill gesture to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, reported dpa.
The vehicles were being driven from the Betyunia checkpoint, near Ramallah, directly to Abbas' headquarters compound in the West Bank city, where they would be welcomed home in a official ceremony.
The prisoners were transferred early in the morning from a prison close to Jerusalem to Betyunia. After alighting from the buses, they kissed the ground before entering a building for final checking, while their relatives and friends on the other side of the barrier waved, whistled and cheered.
The 198 are all "security prisoners," held for membership of Palestinian militant organizations declared illegal in Israel, involvement in attempted shooting and bomb attacks or possession of weapons.
The released prisoners are members of militant off-shoots of Abbas' Fatah party. The move is seen as a bid to strengthen the standing of the moderate Palestinian president, opposite the radical Islamic Hamas movement ruling Gaza. No Hamas members are among those to be released.
But the list also includes two Palestinians "with blood on their hands," the definition Israel uses for militants who took part or abetted in "successful" attacks against Israelis that resulted in deaths or injuries.
They are Said al-Atabeh and Mohammed Abu Ali Yatta, the longest and the second-longest held Palestinian prisoner in Israel, who served more than, and almost, 30 years in jail respectively.
All prisoners to be freed had to sign a form agreeing never to engage again in hostile actions against Israel.
The release takes place hours before US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives in the region for another visit aimed at gauging the progress of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which resumed at the turn of the year after a seven-year hiatus.