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Israel releases 26 Palestinian prisoners as part of deal for peace talks
Joy in West Bank and Gaza Strip as Israel releases 26 prisoners as part of deal brokered by John Kerry
Palestinian prisoner Najeh Meqbel (R) is welcomed by his mother and family members after he was released from an Isreali prison, in the al-Aroub refugee camp, just north of the West Bank town of HebronPhoto: ABED AL HASHLAMOUN/EPA
Israel has freed 26 Palestinian prisoners, the second of four batches to be released as part of a deal that set in motion the current Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Hazem Shobair is welcomed home by people in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip (Reuters)
The decision to release the 26 has triggered anguish and anger in Israel, where many view the men as terrorists who have committed grisly crimes against Israelis. But jubilant celebrations kicked off in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where the prisoners are seen as heroes who fought for independence, and were received by their families and Palestinian leaders.
The release was part of an agreement brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry that brought Israel and the Palestinians back to the table for peace talks that had been paralyzed since 2008. In all, 104 convicts are to be released in four batches over the coming months.
In the West Bank and Gaza, the mood was boisterous as hundreds of relatives and well-wishers welcomed the prisoners home, after many had spent more than 20 years behind bars.
Mohammed Sabbagh, accompanied by his family members and relatives, speaks to the crowd at his home in the West Bank refugee camp of Jenin after his release (AP)
Throngs of people rushed toward the prisoners as they were freed, hoisting them on their shoulders, waving Palestinian flags and bopping to blaring music. In Gaza, where five of the prisoners were released, relatives held signs that read "we will never forget our heroes." The 21 prisoners released to the West Bank were to be greeted at a welcoming ceremony later by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
"Today is a day of joy for the family and for all of Palestine," said Tayser Shubair, waiting earlier for his brother's release in Gaza. His brother Hazem was jailed in 1994 for the death of an Israeli, according to the Israeli Prison Service. "My brother is a freedom fighter and we are proud of him and we thank the president for his effort to get him out."
Released Palestinian prisoner Hazza Saadi kisses his mother upon returning to his home in the West Bank refugee camp of Jenin (AP)
Thousands of Palestinians have been held in Israeli prisons since Israel's capture of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war, many jailed on charges ranging from throwing rocks to killing civilians in bombings, shootings and other attacks.
The fate of the prisoners is a deeply emotional issue in Palestinian society. After decades of fighting Israel, many families have had a member imprisoned and the release of prisoners has been a longstanding demand.
Among those going free are people jailed in connection to the killings of Israelis including a reservist and a Nazi death camp survivor, according to the list provided by Israel's prison service. Many of the killings occurred before the beginning of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in 1993.
Israel's Supreme Court earlier rejected an appeal that sought to cancel the prisoner release. An organization of bereaved families behind the appeal has said it fears the prisoners, all convicted in connection to the deaths of Israelis, will return to violence once freed.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (right) holds hands with a freed prisoner during a welcome ceremony at the Palestinian Authority headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah (AP)
Highlighting the opposition to the move, some 50 Israelis protested outside the West Bank prison where the inmates were held ahead of the release. They held signs reading "death to murderers" and burned keffiyehs, traditional Palestinian headscarves. Over a thousand people demonstrated against the release on Monday.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon told Israeli TV he felt for the bereaved families but that the decision to free the prisoners came from a "responsibility to guide the state of Israel according to a long-term strategy."
Israel has a long history of lopsided prisoner exchanges with its Arab adversaries. But the most recent release appeared especially charged because Israel is receiving little in return except for the opportunity to conduct negotiations that few people believe will be successful.
To make up for the release prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced 1,500 new homes in the east Jerusalem settlement of Ramat Shlomo.
Israel captured east Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed it in a move never recognised by the international community.
In August, Israel announced plans for more than 2,000 new settler homes in tandem with the first prisoner release, angering the Palestinians.