Israel frees 26 veteran Palestinian prisoners as part of peace talks deal
Release proceeds after Israeli supreme court rejects petition by victims’ group
An Israeli protester wears a keffiyeh, a traditional Arab scarf, during a protest against the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails outside Ofer prison near the West Bank city of Ramallah yesterday. Photograph: Darren Whiteside/Reuters
Crowds gathered on Tuesday night in Ramallah and Gaza to celebrate the arrival of 26 veteran Palestinian prisoners freed by Israel as part of a deal to relaunch peace talks.
Some of the waiting relatives, who brought sweets and cakes to the meeting point where the buses were due, expressed regret over the actions of the men being released.
Others said their only regret was that the men had spent so long in an Israeli jail.
Israel planned to release the militants after midnight to keep publicity to a minimum and avoid pictures of celebrations making the front pages of today’s Israeli newspapers.
The detainees, 21 from the West Bank and five from Gaza, were mostly jailed before the signing of the Oslo peace accords in 1993, and all participated, directly or indirectly, in attacks that resulted in Israeli fatalities.
The release went ahead after Israel’s supreme court rejected a petition by the Almagor Terror Victims’ Association against the move.
The release is the second batch of four planned to take place every three months, and was demanded by the Palestinians as a condition for resuming peace talks after Israel refused to order another freeze on West Bank settlement construction or to commit to negotiations based on the 1967 West Bank border.
The release prompted bitter criticism from the right-wing Jewish Home party, a member of Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition, and from bereaved parents of soldiers and civilians killed by the militants being set free.
On Tuesday, protesters placed signs on graves at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem, which read in Hebrew: “Sorry we forgot. For us, your death was in vain – [signed] the Israeli government.”
The protest sparked outrage across Israel, with radio talkshows dominated by people arguing that cemeteries were off-limits for political protests.
A representative of the protesters apologised to bereaved parents upset by the signs but said the act “represented the cry of the victims killed by Palestinian terrorists”.
Mr Netanyahu said he had agonised over the decision to free the militants.
“The decision to release prisoners is one of the toughest decisions that I’ve taken as prime minister. My heart is with the bereaved families, and it pains me. This decision is a necessity given the reality in which we live.”