Palestinians are celebrating Israel's release of nearly 200 prisoners Monday. Israel says it freed the prisoners as a gesture to bolster the moderate Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas. The release came just before the arrival of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who will work to push along a peace deal on Palestinian statehood. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from Jerusalem.
Hundreds of people took to the streets of Ramallah in the West Bank to cheer the first Palestinians released by Israel Monday, welcoming them as heroes. Some of the former prisoners kissed the ground as they arrived on Palestinian territory.
The prisoners, in some cases, had been held for decades. Israel had been reluctant to release them because some had been imprisoned for attacks that had killed Israeli civilians.
Israeli officials say releasing the prisoners was not easy, but they did so because they believe the gesture could help move along negotiations with the Palestinians.
Greeting the released prisoners on Monday was Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who welcomed their release but said Israel must free more of the at least nine-thousand Palestinians still in prison.
Mr. Abbas said Palestinians love peace and want a comprehensive peace accord. But, he said, no peace will come without the release of all prisoners.
The release came hours before the arrival in Israel of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials.
The United States wants to see a peace agreement by the end of the year. However, Israel has warned that such an agreement is still out of reach.
Israelis and Palestinians remain far apart on key issues including Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and the Palestinians' right of return.
Israel last week warned that too much international pressure could yield a premature agreement and result in a new outbreak of violence.