Israel began the process of releasing 26 Palestinian prisoners late last night, a gesture on the eve of renewed Middle East negotiations.

Many prisoners were convicted of terrorist-related offences, including the killing of Israeli civilians and suspected Palestinian collaborators, more than 20 years ago.

The Israeli prison service said buses carrying the inmates left the Ayalon jail in central Israel last night – half for the West Bank and half for the Gaza Strip. The men were released late at night to prevent a spectacle.

 
Israeli Prisons Authority vans carrying Palestinian prisoners due for release to help underpin peace talks drive out of Ayalon prison near Lod, on its way to the crossing between Israel and Gaza

Israeli Prisons Authority vans carrying Palestinian prisoners due for release to help underpin peace talks drive out of Ayalon prison near Lod, on its way to the crossing between Israel and Gaza

The decision to set them free has stirred anguish in Israel, particularly among the relatives of those killed in attacks.

Celebrations were planned in the Palestinian territories, where prisoners are regarded as heroes  who have made personal sacrifices in the struggle for independence.

The released prisoners were greeted by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas personally and he later laid a wreath at the grave of late president Yasser Arafat.

Mr Abbas delivered a short speech congratulating the prisoners and said he will ‘not rest until they are all released’. There are about 4,500 Palestinians in Israeli jails. ‘You are just the beginning and the rest will come,’ he said.

The release was part of an agreement brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry to get Israel and the Palestinians back to the table for peace talks that had been paralysed since 2008. In all, 104 convicts are to be released in four batches, although their freedom is contingent on progress in peace talks.

 
Palestinians wave their national and yellow Fatah flags as they wait for the released prisoners at a checkpoint at the entrance of Beit Hanoun

Palestinians wave their national and yellow Fatah flags as they wait for the released prisoners at a checkpoint at the entrance of Beit Hanoun

Israelis and Palestinians are to launch talks in Jerusalem today, following a preparatory round two weeks ago in Washington.

The decision to release the men stirred anguish in Israel, where many Israelis view them as terrorists. Most of the prisoners were convicted of killings, including Israeli civilians, soldiers and suspected Palestinian collaborators, while others were involved in attempted murder or kidnapping.

Celebrations erupted in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where thousands of Palestinian well-wishers awaited the buses’ arrival. Palestinians generally view the prisoners as heroes regardless of their acts, arguing they made personal sacrifices in the struggle for independence.

Fireworks lit the sky in Gaza, where rival Hamas and Fatah supporters, including several masked gunmen, celebrated to the beat of drums. Some danced while others flashed victory signs and waved the flags of the Palestinian factions. Cars with loudspeakers blasted nationalistic songs.

‘Today is a day of joy and happiness. I can’t wait until I hug my beloved son,’ said Aicha Abu Setta, the 68-year-old mother of freed prisoner Alla Abu Setta.

 
Palestinian relatives of Atif Shaat, celebrate while waiting for his release at the checkpoint at the entrance of Beit Hanoun between north of Gaza Strip and Israel

Palestinian relatives of Atif Shaat, celebrate while waiting for his release at the checkpoint at the entrance of Beit Hanoun between north of Gaza Strip and Israel

‘I am so excited that he will be free and he will spend his first night among us after more than 20 years,’ she said, clutching a picture of her 43-year-old son, who was arrested in 1994, charged, along with his cousin, with killing a soldier.

Palestinians hurled rocks at the Israeli military vehicles escorting the bus convoy as it reached the crossing to the West Bank. About a thousand people took to the streets of Ramallah in celebration, singing and dancing.

Among those released was a Palestinian convicted in the 1994 killing of Isaac Rotenberg, a 69-year-old Holocaust survivor who was attacked with an axe as he was working at a construction site where he was a contractor. Others were convicted in the killings of Ian Feinberg, an Israeli lawyer killed in a European aid office in Gaza in 1993, and Frederick Rosenfeld, an American killed while hiking in the West Bank in 1989.

On Monday, Israel’s prison service posted the names online of the first 26 inmates to be released to allow for possible court appeals. Israel’s Supreme Court rejected an appeal by families of those killed by the prisoners yesterday.

Most of the inmates have already served around 20 years, with the longest-held arrested in 1985. Fourteen of the prisoners were released to the Gaza Strip and 12 to the West Bank.

Earlier, Israel angered Palestinians when it announced it was moving forward with building nearly 900 new settlement homes in east Jerusalem.

  ‘I am so excited that he will be free and he will spend his first night among us after more than 20 years,’

Aicha Abu Setta, the 68-year-old mother of freed prisoner Alla Abu Setta

 

The Palestinians had refused to resume negotiations with Israel unless it halted settlement construction in territory it wants for a future state. Israel has refused insisting that settlements and other core issues be resolved through talks.

After six trips to the region, Kerry managed to persuade Mr Abbas to drop the settlement issue as a condition for negotiations to start. In exchange, Israel agreed to the prisoner release.

The Palestinians argue the settlements, now home to more than 500,000 Israelis, are making it increasingly difficult to carve out their state and that continued Israeli construction is a sign of bad faith.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, said Israel’s settlement plans are a slap in the face of the Palestinians and Mr Kerry. ‘It is not just deliberate sabotage of the talks, but really a destruction of the outcome,’ she said.

She urged Mr Kerry ‘to stand up to Israel’ and deliver a tough response.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, rejected the Palestinian claim.

‘The Palestinians know that Israel rejected their demands of a settlement freeze as a precondition to these talks, they cannot say otherwise,’ he said. ‘The construction that the Israeli government authorised is all in Jerusalem and the large blocs, in areas that will remain part of Israel in any possible final status agreement and this construction that has been authorised in no way changes the final map of peace.’

Mr Kerry said he had spoken with Mr Netanyahu yesterday morning. ‘We had a very frank and open discussion on the issue of settlements,’ he said. ‘Let me make it clear. The policy of the United States with respect to all settlements is that they are illegitimate and we oppose settlements taking place anytime.’

 

 

 
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