RAMALLAH, West Bank — Israel today freed nearly 200 jailed Palestinian Arabs — including a militant mastermind from the 1970s — in a goodwill gesture just hours before Secretary of State Rice was to begin her latest peace mission to the region.
The prisoners returned to cheers and applause as they entered Palestinian Arab-controlled territory before heading to a massive rally attended by thousands of people at the headquarters of President Abbas.
The prisoners arrived at Ramallah after being released by prison guards at an Israeli military checkpoint near Jerusalem. The prisoners, some waving black-and-white checkered keffiyeh headdresses as they stepped off Israeli buses, kissed the ground before boarding Palestinian Arab vehicles.
Among the 198 Palestinian Arabs freed was Said al-Atba, who has served 32 years of a life sentence for carrying out a deadly market bombing in the 1970s. Al-Atba, 57, was the longest serving inmate held by Israel and he is widely seen by the Palestinian public as a symbol of all the prisoners.
His brother, Hisham, came from Saudi Arabia, where he works, to join the hundreds of Palestinians waiting to greet the prisoners.
"I feel great, great joy," he said. "We had lost hope that my brother would be released because he's been in prison for 32 years." Al-Atba's sister, Raida, said she had prepared her brother's favorite food, stuffed vine leaves and zucchini.
Israel said the release was a gesture meant to bolster Mr. Abbas and his western-leaning administration and give a boost to the slow-moving peace talks with the moderate Palestinian Arab leader.
"It's not easy for Israel to release prisoners. Some of the individuals being released today are guilty of direct involvement in the murder of innocent civilians," a government spokesman, Mark Regev, said. "But we understand the importance of the prisoner issue for Palestinian society. ... We believe this action can support the negotiation process and create goodwill."
The fate of the roughly 9,000 Palestinians at Israeli jails is highly emotional, since many Palestinian Arabs either know someone in prison or have served time themselves. Mr. Abbas, who is struggling to show his people the fruits of the peace talks, has repeatedly urged Israel to carry out a large-scale release.
"We will not rest until the prisoners are freed and the jails are empty," Mr. Abbas told the cheering crowd at Ramallah.
He mentioned Marwan Barghouti, a West Bank leader of Abbas' Fatah movement, who is serving five consecutive life terms at an Israeli prison but is widely seen as a future Palestinian president.
Mr. Abbas also singled out Ahmed Saadat, jailed leader of small radical faction suspected in the 2001 assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister and the imprisoned Palestinian parliament speaker Aziz Duaik of Fatah's rival, the radical Islamic Hamas movement.
"He is our brother and we must struggle to free all prisoners," Mr. Abbas said.
At the presidential compound at Ramallah hung a giant poster with pictures of Mr. Abbas, al-Atba, and another veteran prisoner being freed, Mohammed Abu Ali, a lawmaker from Abbas' Fatah party.
He was jailed in 1980 for killing an Israeli settler in the West Bank and later convicted of killing a Palestinian in jail he accused of collaborating with Israel.
In the festive Ramallah crowd Monday was Abu Ali's wife Suad, 51, and the couple's three children: Ibrahim, 32, Palestine 29, and Leila, 27.
"When Mohammed was arrested I was 22 years old, my children were babies," she said. "Today I feel like I've been reborn. My family's life has begun today."
Israel has released prisoners to Mr. Abbas in the past, most recently last December. But it has balked at releasing Palestinians serving time for deadly attacks. It appears to be easing its criteria following a prisoner swap last month with the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah. Under that deal, Israel exchanged a Lebanese man convicted in a notorious triple murder for the remains of two Israeli soldiers.
Eager to bolster Mr. Abbas in his rivalry with Hamas, Israel says the latest release is meant to show the Palestinian Arabs that dialogue, not violence, is the best way to win concessions.
Hamas is demanding the release of hundreds of prisoners in exchange for an Israeli soldier captured by Palestinian militants in a cross-border raid two years ago. The soldier is being held in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
The prisoner release came ahead of the arrival of Ms. Rice, who has been mediating the negotiations between Israel and Mr. Abbas' government. The talks had aimed for an agreement by the end of the year, but both sides have acknowledged that it is unlikely they will reach their target.
AP correspondent Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah contributed to this report.