ISRAEL yesterday released more than two dozen Palestinian prisoners convicted of deadly attacks against Israelis as part of a US-brokered package to restart Middle East peace talks.
After leaving on buses from Israeli jails, the prisoners received heroes’ welcomes on their return to the West Bank and Gaza with officials and jubilant relatives lining up to greet them.
At his headquarters in Ramallah, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas waited to meet the released men. Speaking to a crowd of thousands, he pledged to continue pressing for the release of long-serving and ill prisoners.
“We will not sign a final peace deal with Israel before all the prisoners are released,” he said.
However in Israel, the release was greeted with anger and frustration with prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu facing a public uproar over the move.
With Mr Netanyahu expected to accompany the releases with plans to build hundreds of new homes in Jewish settlements, the criticism came from some unlikely quarters.
Supporters of peace talks said the expected construction would destroy any goodwill created by the prisoner release, while hard-line allies criticised Mr Netanyahu for linking the Jewish settlement cause with the release of prisoners convicted in connection with killings, mostly of Israelis.
“Leadership is judged by the ability to implement decisions, difficult as they may be,” Mr Netanyahu told members of his Likud Party, “We were not elected to make easy decisions.”
Under a formula drawn up by the US secretary of state, John Kerry, Israel agreed last summer to release a total of 104 long-term Palestinian prisoners in order to restart the peace talks with the Palestinians.
In exchange, the Palestinians dropped their historic demand for Israel to halt construction of homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, areas captured by Israel in 1967 that they claim for their future state.
The Palestinians say they have received vague assurances Israel would show restraint while the talks continue until an April target date for an agreement.
The latest prisoner release is the third of four planned stages. It was carried out overnight to avoid the spectacle of having to witness the celebrations over the killers’ freedom. All 26 of the men have spent between 19 and 28 years in prison. They included 18 from the West Bank, three Gazans, and five from east Jerusalem.
The releases generated excitement throughout Palestinian society, where prisoners held by Israel are revered as freedom fighters. Families decorated their homes and neighbourhoods with posters of those who were returning home and planned large feasts.
The family of Ahmed Shihadeh prepared a celebration in the Qalandia refugee camp in the West Bank. Mr Shihadeh, 51, has spent nearly 29 years in prison after being convicted in the murder of an alleged collaborator with Israel.
His mother Haseba, 75, said she has “spent my life” visiting her son, but has not been able to make the trip for the past two years because she can no longer walk.
“I’ve visited him in 14 jails. I would leave my kids screaming and go for a visit,” she said.
In the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Jabal al-Mukaber, the sound of kettle drums and ululating women filled the air as residents prepared for the return of Jamal Abu Jamal, who spent nearly 20 years in prison for a stabbing attack.
Israeli opponents of the prisoner release have staged days of protests against the move. A group representing the families appealed to the Supreme Court to block the action. It was rejected late on Monday, allowing the releases to continue.