Close to 200 terrorists, including two who had murdered Jews, were freed Monday in another "goodwill gesture" to the PA by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Relatives and friends of Jews who are imprisoned in Israeli prisons held a protest Monday morning to demonstrate their disgust at the government’s decision to keep their loved ones in jail while freeing Arab terrorists.

The protestors demonstrated at the Ofer Prison, calling on the government to release Jewish prisoners as it has the hundreds of Arabs that have been freed in Prime Minister Olmert’s numerous “goodwill gestures” to the Palestinian Authority.

Security officials began the process of releasing 198 Palestinian Authority Arab terrorists and security prisoners, including two with “blood on their hands,” Monday morning at the Ofer Prison, north of Jerusalem.

After signing a document that certified their promise to abstain from returning to a life of terrorism, each convict – including the two who actually killed Jews, as well as the many others who attempted to do so, but failed – boarded buses taking them to Ramallah and then to their homes in Judea and Samaria.

In a statement released to the media, the government spokesperson’s office said the released prisoners are all members of factions that support the leadership of Palestinian Authority Chairman and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen).

“Through this latest confidence-building measure - which addresses an issue of critical significance for the Palestinians - Israel seeks to intensify its continued dialogue with partners who are both committed to diplomacy and opposed to terrorism,” read the government statement. “The release further underscores Israel's willingness to make painful concessions for the sake of advancing peace negotiations.”

Killers Welcomed by Abbas with Open Arms

The prisoners were taken to the Betunia checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah, where they were to be officially set free.  The busloads of terrorists are then to be transported to the Mukata in Ramallah for a festive welcome ceremony at which they will be greeted by Abbas, according to PA Minister for Prisoner Affairs, Ashraf El Ajrami.

Following the ceremony, the terrorists will return to their families and other festivities in Hevron and Shechem.

Originally 199 prisoners were to be set free, but at the last minute it was discovered that one of those on the list is facing a pending criminal investigation and was thus deemed ineligible for release.

Two of the prisoners slated for release served nearly 30 years of their life sentences for murdering Jews. The rest were convicted on other charges, including attempted murder, shooting at people, placing bombs, membership in terrorist organizations and aiding and abetting senior terrorists. 

Israel released 429 prisoners last December in a similar “goodwill” gesture.

Court Rejected Attempt to Block Release

The High Court of Justice on Sunday rejected a petition by the Almagor terror victims’ group asking the court to block the government’s release of the terrorists, accepting instead the state’s position that the matter was a purely political-diplomatic issue.

Two justices, Ayala Procaccia and Edmond Levi, criticized the government’s urgency in freeing the terrorists, saying the time frame made it impossible to hold a proper discussion before reaching a decision on such a grave matter.

Israelis were given only a 48-hour window within which to examine a published list of the names of those who were being released and file a legal petition against the move.

A Show for Condoleezza Rice

The timing of the release is also being carried out several hours before US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives, making it obvious that Prime Minister Olmert wants to show her that Israel is making concessions to the PA.

Last week, the road that connects Ramallah with PA villages to the south was re-opened to a free flow of traffic when the IDF and the Civil Administration removed the security roadblock at Bir Naballah, the third such roadblock to be eliminated this month.

More than 100 roadblocks and security checkpoints were removed in Judea and Samaria in May and June, around the time of Rice’s last spate of visits to the region.

It is not clear what, if any, concessions have been made to Israel by the Palestinian Authority in return.