Israel released the Hamas speaker of the Palestinian parliament, Aziz Dweik, after nearly three years in prison. Mr Dweik, 60, arrived at a military checkpoint outside the city of Tulkarem in the north of the occupied West Bank after his release from Hadarim prison near Tel Aviv. He was greeted by a horde of reporters. "Any person deprived of his freedom feels an enormous hardship," Mr Dweik said.
His release comes after a military tribunal, at the Ofer military base near Ramallah, rejected an application by prosecutors to keep Mr Dweik behind bars after his three-year sentence ran out. Mr Dweik was elected speaker in February 2006, a month after the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) swept Palestinian parliamentary elections in a surprise rout of the long dominant Fatah party of president Mahmoud Abbas.
He was arrested by Israeli security forces at his Ramallah home in August 2006 in a West Bank crackdown on Hamas, in which more than 60 elected officials were detained, including a third of the then government and more than two dozen MPs. Some were later released, but at least 35 remain in custody. The crackdown came after Hamas and other Gaza militants seized Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in a deadly cross-border raid in June 2006. He remains in captivity to this day.
In December 2008, an Israeli military court sentenced Mr Dweik to three years in prison including the 28 months he had already served for membership of Hamas, which Israel like the European Union and the United States blacklists as a terror group. Because of power struggles between Hamas and the rival Fatah, the Palestinian parliament has been paralysed for nearly all of its tenure, managing to meet only a few times since its inaugural session in February 2006.
The animosity between the two camps reached its acme two years ago, when Hamas routed Fatah forces from Gaza to seize power in the territory. The discord was on full display on Tuesday, as Hamas welcomed Mr Dweik's release in a statement, saying it "should breathe new life into and reinforce the parliament and introduce a certain balance to the West Bank faced with the monstrosity of Fatah and its security services."
Mr Abbas called Mr Dweik to "congratulate" him on his freedom, his office said. Hamas has 74 MPs in the 132-parliament and Fatah 45, with the rest of the deputies belonging to smaller factions. Israel currently holds some 9,260 Palestinian prisoners, according to Palestinian figures. *AFP