Israel frees 26 Palestinian prisoners before peace talks

Men delivered to border crossings by bus hours before US-brokered negotiations due to resume

Freed Palestinian prisoner Hosni Sawalha (C) is greeted by his sister upon arrival in the West Bank village of Azmout this morning. Israel freed 26 Palestinian prisoners  to keep US-sponsored peacemaking on course. Photograph: Abed Omar Qusini/Reuters.

Freed Palestinian prisoner Hosni Sawalha (C) is greeted by his sister upon arrival in the West Bank village of Azmout this morning. Israel freed 26 Palestinian prisoners to keep US-sponsored peacemaking on course. Photograph: Abed Omar Qusini/Reuters.

 

Israeli authorities freed 26 Palestinian prisoners hours before Middle East peace talks were due to resume, satisfying a goal Palestinian leaders had sought to get the US-brokered negotiations moving.

The prisoners, most convicted of killing Israelis, were delivered at around 1.30 am today by bus to border crossings at the West Bank and Gaza Strip and released into Palestinian territory.

They received a hero’s welcome from Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, who pledged not to rest until “all prisoners are freed.”

“We congratulate ourselves, our people, our brothers who were freed from the Israeli prisons to witness freedom today,” Mr Abbas said at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where thousands had gathered, some carrying Palestinian flags and pictures of their loved ones. “We tell them the rest are following you.”

Israeli and Palestinian representatives are scheduled to hold peace negotiations in Jerusalem later today with US envoy Martin Indyk. The freed prisoners are the first among 104 that Israel has agreed to release in return for a Palestinian agreement to restart talks that were stalled for three years.

As the two sides prepared to meet, US secretary of state John Kerry said he spoke with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu about settlements in occupied territories.

The last round of peace talks stalled in 2010 when Mr Netanyahu declined to extend a settlement moratorium. Mr Kerry said he and Mr Netanyahu talked about Israel’s plan to build almost 1,200 homes in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem that brought criticism from Palestinian leaders.

Mr Netanyahu “has specifically agreed not to disturb what could be the potential for peace going forward,” Mr Kerry said during a joint news conference in Brazil. “We still believe it would be better not to be doing it, but there are realities within life in Israel that also have to be taken into account.”

Mr Abbas “understood that coming into these talks,” Mr Kerry said.

Bloomberg