REPORTING FROM RAMALLAH, WEST BANK –- Families and friends gathered in Ramallah on Sunday to await the release of 550 Palestinians from jail, concluding a two-stage deal that saw Israeli soldier soldier Gilad Shalit freed in October after five years in captivity.
Palestinians drove around the West Bank city honking their horns, flashing pictures of the prisoners and playing nationalist music over loudspeakers.
At Beitunia checkpoint near the Ofer military camp, where many of the prisoners were being held, young Palestinians gathered to wait for Red Cross buses to emerge from the facility with the prisoners.
Clashes erupted with Israeli soldiers on the other side of the fence. Palestinian hurled stones at the soldiers, who fired back with tear gas and stun grenades, forcing the hundreds waiting for the prisoners to flee the area.
Other families waited at the presidential headquarters in Ramallah.
The first phase of the prisoner deal reached by Israel and the militant Hamas movement included the release in October of 477 Palestinians, most of them serving multiple life sentences and many accused of murdering Israelis.
While the first group of released prisoners included mainly members of Hamas, the new group includes no members of that organization or Islamic Jihad, another Islamist group. Most of those being released were held on minor charges.
The group will include 40 prisoners from the Gaza Strip and the rest mostly from the West Bank.
According to Palestinian officials and activists, the released prisoners will include 55 under the age of 18, six females, two Jordanians and two Jerusalem residents, including a French national who had served seven years in prison and was set to be released early next year.
Officials said most of the prisoners had nearly completed their terms. After the release, about 4,500 Palestinian prisoners will remain in Israeli jails.
-- Maher Abukhater
Photo: Jubilant Palestinians wait at the Beituniya checkpoint for released prisoners to cross into the West Bank city of Ramallah. Credit: Nasser Shiyoukhi / Associated Press