JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The longest-serving Palestinian prisoner in Israel was included in an official list on Monday of 199 people due to be released next week in a declared bid to bolster President Mahmoud Abbas.
Said al-Atabeh, 57, of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), was arrested in 1977 and sentenced to life imprisonment after being convicted of involvement in bombings that killed an Israeli woman and wounded dozens of people.
He and 198 other Palestinians are due to go free on August 25. Their release will coincide with a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who Israeli and Palestinian officials said would try to spur progress towards a peace deal.
A release list published by the Israel Prisons Service also included Mohammad Abu Ali, 52, who was jailed for life in 1980 for killing a leader of Jewish settlers near Hebron, in the occupied West Bank.
Abu Ali received a second life term for the jailhouse killing of a Palestinian suspected of collaborating with Israeli authorities. Though in prison, he was elected to the Palestinian parliament in 2006.
Some 11,000 Palestinians are in Israeli prisons and securing their release is a highly emotive issue in Palestinian society as Abbas pursues an elusive peace deal with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Several Israeli cabinet ministers had opposed freeing Palestinians “with blood on their hands”, an Israeli term for attacks that caused Israeli casualties, but a ministerial committee approved the list earlier on Monday.
“I was afraid that I would die before I saw him,” said Atabeh’s 75-year-old mother Widad. She said Israeli authorities last allowed her to visit him in prison more than two years ago.
The son of the dead Israeli woman, Tzila Galili, killed in a vegetable market explosion carried out by Atabeh’s DFLP cell, told Israel’s YNet news website: “The terrorist who killed my mother should have been killed, not jailed.”
Israeli government officials said they hoped the release would boost popular support for Abbas, whose Fatah faction lost control of the Gaza Strip to Hamas Islamists last year, and show Palestinians that dialogue can achieve results.
The United States has said it hopes to conclude a framework peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians before President George W. Bush leaves office in January.
But the talks have stumbled over disputes over Israeli settlement building and the future of Jerusalem.
Rice last held meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials in Washington on July 30, the same day Olmert, hit by a corruption scandal, said he would step down after his party chooses a new leader in September.
About half of the prisoners on the release list were to have completed their sentences next year, but 43 had at least five more years to serve. Four of the prisoners are women.
Offences listed next to prisoners’ names ranged from stone-throwing to shooting attacks.
Reporting by Mohammed Assadi, Ori Lewis and Adam Entous, Editing by Sami Aboudi