DAHYIAT EL BARID, WEST BANK: A Palestinian prisoner released by Israel on Sunday as part of a swap for a captive soldier said the influential rabbi he was jailed for plotting to assassinate deserves to die.
Salah Hamouri, 26, was one of 550 prisoners freed on Sunday to complete a deal in which Israel released 1,027 prisoners for soldier Gilad Shalit, who was held captive in the Gaza Strip for over five years.
Many of the 450 prisoners freed on Oct. 18 under the Egyptian-brokered swap for the soldier had been serving life sentences for deadly attacks.
None of those freed in the second stage, on Sunday, had been convicted of perpetrating any killings, though some such as Hamouri were involved in plotting violence, or involvement in non-lethal attacks.
Hamouri, of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) militant group, said in an interview he and two accomplices were correct in seeking to kill former Israeli chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef, now 91, for which he was jailed in 2005.
Israel asks most Palestinian prisoners it frees ahead of serving out their sentences to sign a pledge forswearing future involvement in violence, but not all stick to their word.
Hamouri's lack of repentance seemed an example of how the symbolic swap which initially stirred some optimism, wound up changing little on the ground, where conflict, fueled by months of diplomatic stalemate, persists.
Interviewed at his home in the West Bank, land Israel captured in a 1967 war that Palestinians want for a state, Hamouri cited hateful remarks made by Rabbi Yosef in the past as justification for sticking to his own militant views.
"This man is and will remain a symbol of racism and fanaticism in Israel," Hamouri said.
The outspoken Yosef, a mentor to Shas, a powerful religious party and junior partner in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's conservative coalition government, has on a few occasions slandered Palestinians and wished death on them.
In a sermon in 2000 Yosef likened Palestinians to snakes, drawing strong rebukes from both Israeli and Palestinian leaders and a year later he said Arabs should "be shelled with missiles...to destroy them."
In his latest edict in August 2010 Yosef said: "Abu Mazen (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas) and all these evil people should perish from this earth ... God should strike them and these Palestinians -- evil haters of Israel -- with a plague".
Hamouri's French mother, Denise Hamouri-Guidoux, had campaigned for his release for years and said she managed to get French President Nicolas Sarkozy to seek her son's release.
The release was conditional on Yosef's consent, which he gave earlier this month, permitting Hamouri to go free as part of the deal for Shalit, just several months before his prison term was to have expired.
"This is a final attempt from the occupation to give this racist man a human face," Hamouri said of Rabbi Yosef's nod.
Fluent in French, Hamouri, who also holds a French passport, told Reuters he wanted to go to France to thank those who campaigned for his release.
"Freedom represents life, and to be free now, surrounded with my friends and family, I feel alive and hopeful again," he said.