Twenty six convicted Palestinian terrorists were freed by Israel overnight Tuesday, and welcomed home to the West Bank and Gaza, as part of the US-brokered deal that enabled the resumption of peace talks.
The 11 West Bankers in the group were met at the Muqata, the seat of power of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, by a crowd of cheering, singing relatives and supporters. Their celebrations lasted until 3 a.m.
En route, Palestinians hurled rocks at the IDF military vehicles escorting the bus convoy as it reached the crossing to the West Bank.
In Ramallah, the released prisoners laid a wreath at the grave of late Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat and were greeted by his successor Mahmoud Abbas at the presidential compound. Abbas invited them onto a temporary stage while a crowd of over 1,000 erupted into cheers. Other dignitaries from the PA and PLO were also in attendance.
During his speech, Abbas didn’t mention peace talks with Israel. Rather, he focused on the prisoners and the Palestinians’ efforts to attain an independent state.
Abbas told the 11 that they were “only the first” of the longtime convicts to be released, and that “others will follow.” When he raised the hands of a newly released prisoners, the onlookers erupted into cheers. “Allah will return all [prisoners] to us soon,” Abbas said, speaking alongside the ex-prisoners. “We say to the prisoners who are currently incarcerated: We will not rest until you are all with us.”
Some of the prisoners were then carried around the Muqata compound on the shoulders of the relatives. After the celebration, the prisoners were set to meet their families in private.
Several of the released prisoners told Israeli reporters that they would not return to violence and favored the new peace talks. “Why violence?” Salah Mugdad asked a Channel 2 interviewer. Mugad, convicted of the murder of Israel Tenenbaum, a guard at the Sirens Hotel in Netanya, said he hoped the two sides could now resolve all their differences at the peace table.
“Contrary to the widespread perception,” asserted Yusef Irshaid, who was serving five life terms for murder, the Palestinian prisoners were not supporters of more killings, but rather were “at the forefront of those pushing for peace.”
All 11 of the West Bankers, and the 15 Gazans, freed by Israel overnight Tuesday were serving lengthy jail terms for involvement in the killings of Israelis, and most of them had been jailed for murder, according to details released by the Israeli authorities on Tuesday.
In Gaza, the 15 prisoners freed were being welcomed with more muted celebrations, since Gaza’s Hamas rulers have slammed Abbas for accepting the “bribe” of the prisoner releases in exchange for restarting talks with Israel that the Islamist group opposes.
Still, 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 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 Sitteh, the 68-year-old mother of freed prisoner Ala Eddin Abu Sitteh.
“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, and convicted, along with his cousin Ayman, of murdering Haim Weizman and David Dadi in Ramle in 1993. Both members of Fatah, the cousins were each sentenced to two life terms.
Meanwhile, the brother of another Palestinian terrorist, Salamah Musleh, a Fatah activist from Gaza who was convicted of involvement in the murder of Reuven David in Petah Tikva in 1991, told YNet that he supported negotiating with Israel.
“I thought I’d never see him again,” Adel Musleh said about his brother. “It’s impossible to put my feelings into words. I’m glad he was released in the negotiations… Negotiations are a good thing.”
A second round of peace talks was scheduled to begin in Jerusalem on Wednesday.
Two buses with the 26 Palestinian prisoners departed Ayalon Prison on Tuesday evening, hours after the High Court of Justice rejected a petition by the families of terror victims to block their release.
A bus holding the 11 Palestinians arrived at the Ofer Prison outside Ramallah at 11 p.m. for final processing before the high-profile prisoners were transferred to the PA.
A second bus carrying 15 Palestinians to Gaza arrived at the Erez crossing at around the same time.
The windows of the buses were locked shut and blackened out to prevent the released prisoners from waving or flashing victory signs to cameras and others. The actual release was timed for the small hours in order to minimize the publicity surrounding the event.
The prisoners are the first of 104 to be freed from Israeli prisons — in four phases over the coming months — as a goodwill gesture agreed by Israel to enable the restart of peace talks. A Palestinian official said earlier Tuesday evening that the next phase of releases would take place in six weeks.
On Monday and Tuesday, the 26 prisoners underwent a process of identification, medical exams, exit interviews with prison staff and discussions with the Red Cross.
Many Israelis, civilians and Knesset Members, vociferously opposed the prisoner release, with some voices raised in favor.
A number of protesters gathered outside the Ayalon prison in Ramle Tuesday night to demonstrate against the release. In Jerusalem, protesters briefly blocked the city’s light rail with a metal chain, before police cleared it away.
Family members of terror victims petitioned the High Court of Justice on Monday to issue a temporary injunction on the release of the prisoners, claiming that counter to government promises, six of those on the list were tried after Israel and the Palestinians signed the Oslo accords in 1993.
In their rulings early Tuesday, the three judges said that the question of prisoner releases had been brought before the court many times in the past but had always been rejected when the proposed release was part of diplomatic negotiations.
“We see no reason to divert from the court’s decisions on these matters,” the judges wrote.
“The place for terrorists is in prison,” said Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel (Jewish Home) on Monday. “Otherwise the state is making a mockery of its justice system that sentenced these despicable murderers to extended sentences.
“The terrorists that they decided to release murdered women and children and it is not clear to me how releasing murderers can advance peace. Releasing terrorists and achieving peace are two opposite things.”
Senior Citizens Affairs Minister Uri Orbach (Jewish Home) told Israel Radio that he had no expectations of success from the current round of peace talks because, he said, the Palestinians are looking for every opportunity to back out of them. Though he objected to the prisoner release, Orbach noted that any government that builds homes for Jews in the West Bank is a government with which the Jewish Home can be a partner.
“Should we accept the bad and not have the good?” he said.
MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid) also expressed his dismay at the prisoner release during an interview with Israel Radio on Monday, saying that the government should instead have frozen settlement construction.
“In my opinion, of all the alternatives that there were, releasing prisoners is the least moral and the most damaging to the state’s authority,” he said.
Announcing the imminent releases late last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it was “an extremely difficult decision.” In an open letter, he added: “It pains the bereaved families, it pains the entire Israeli public and it pains me very much. It clashes with a foundational value — justice.” But, he added, “Every now and then prime ministers need to take decisions that fly in the face of public opinion — for the good of the country.”
The Associated Press, Ricky Ben David, and Stuart Winer contributed to this report.