Thousands of Palestinians gathered in Ramallah in the early hours of Wednesday morning to greet 21 prisoners released from Israeli custody to the West Bank as part of arrangements for the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Five other Palestinian prisoners were released earlier in Gaza. All 26 were convicted murderers, most of them jailed for crimes committed before the 1993 Oslo Accords.
Cheers rose from the crowd, many of whom held Palestinian and Fatah flags, cameras and AK-47s aloft, as the released men were carried on shoulders from the vans that had brought them from Ofer Prison to the Palestinian city. Celebratory gunfire, whistles and shouts of Allahu Akbar were audible above the din.
The prisoners were greeted in front of Yasser Arafat’s mausoleum next to the Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah by assorted Palestinian dignitaries, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, who kissed and embraced each of the men in succession.
Addressing the assembled Palestinians, Abbas said there would be no peace treaty so long as there are Palestinian prisoners behind lock and key in Israel. He promised to continue in his efforts to free all the prisoners from Israeli incarceration.
Elsewhere in the city, however, festivities were barely registered. According to a Ramallah resident who spoke to Maariv, the city’s main squares were empty of people.
“Anyone walking in Ramallah wouldn’t feel that it’s a special day, that prisoners are being released and there are celebrations,” Yusuf Jaber told the paper. “Only when you arrive at the area of the Muqata do you being to discern something different.”
On Tuesday, Israel’s Supreme Court rejected a request to stop the planned release of the 26 Palestinian prisoners, clearing the last hurdle to the move — the second of four such agreed phased releases.
Some 1,500 people gathered in Ramallah’s main square to celebrate the releases, waving Palestinian and Fatah flags, Ynet news reported.
Earlier in the day, five of the inmates being released to Gaza were loaded into a van for the journey from Ofer Prison in the West Bank to the Erez Crossing with the Strip.
In Gaza, some 300 people amassed ahead of the release to welcome the prisoners at the Erez Crossing, where music blared and dozens of people brandished flags and signs reading “we will never forget our heroes.”
“Today is a day of joy for the family and for all of Palestine,” said Tayser Shubair, whose brother Hazem was jailed in 1994. “My brother is a freedom fighter and we are proud of him and we thank the president [Abbas] for his effort to get him out.”
The release has raised ire in Israel’s right wing and among victims of terror, and set passions aflame in the cabinet, which approved the move Sunday night over the objections of the Knesset’s hawks.
The court said in a statement that there was no legal reason to stop the release from going forward, as Terror Victims’ Association Almagor had requested.
“The question asked of the Supreme Court was only legal — is there a reason to interfere in the decision to release prisoners as part of the negotiations with the Palestinians,” the statement read.
A similar appeal during the first release in August was also rejected.
The three-judge bench had earlier asked the attorney general’s representative if the midnight deadline for the release was “a flexible matter” but received a negative response.
“The government gave its word, through the Americans, that at the start of the fourth month of negotiations — that is, today — the second stage would be carried out. For security-related reasons, it is necessary to complete the transfer and release at night … we must uphold our obligation,” the lawyer representing the state said.
Naftali Wertzberger, a lawyer working with the bereaved families who submitted the appeal, said a recent spate of attacks on Israelis in the West Bank had changed the playing field.
“The government did not bother to discuss the latest wave of terror in the West Bank over the past few weeks. It’s turning the other cheek even as we’re talking about the second phase of the release,” he said. “Releasing terrorists only adds fuel to the terrorist fire. I’m optimistic and hopeful we’ll stop [the releases].”
Highlighting the opposition to the move, some 50 Israelis protested outside Ofer Prison. They held signs reading “death to murderers” and burned keffiyehs, traditional Palestinian headscarves.
A night earlier, as many as 3,000 demonstrators had gathered there to protest the impending release, which Israel promised to do in exchange for the resumption of negotiations.
Among the demonstrators Monday were family members of the victims of terror attacks perpetrated by some of those slated for release on Tuesday. Demonstrators carried the victims’ pictures, and many of them shouted, “Jewish blood is not cheap.”
Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel addressed the demonstration Monday, declaring it was “time to stop” the release of terrorists.
Six of the inmates have been imprisoned for just under 30 years. All but two were convicted for murders committed before the signing of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords.
Among the prisoners to go free is Damouni Saad Mohammed Ahmed, who was convicted in the 1990 killing of IDF reservist Amnon Pomerantz in the Gaza Strip; Pomerantz’s car was set on fire while he was inside. A second convicted murderer of Pomerantz is not among those set to be released.
The killer behind the 1993 murder of South-African-born Ian Feinberg, a 30-year-old lawyer and activist working with Palestinians in Gaza, was also set free. Masoud Issa Rajeb Amer, a member of the PFLP, was sentenced to three life sentences for the killing, which was perpetrated with a hatchet. On April 18, 1993, Feinberg participated in a meeting in the Gaza offices of a European-funded NGO involved in aid projects when terrorists burst in, ordered everyone, except Feinberg, to the floor, and proceeded to kill him.
Massalha Awwad Mohammed Yusuf and Amawi Hamed Alabad Halmi, both Hamas members who killed 22-year-old Yigal Vaknin in 1993, were also released. Vaknin was lured with a plea for help and stabbed to death. His body was found in a field near his home in Moshav Bazra in the Sharon region, two hours before the start on Yom Kippur that year. Yusuf was originally sentenced to two life terms for the killing.
The release has drawn a great deal of political fire for the prime minister, and led to a spat between coalition partners Bennett and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnua party), who is in charge of peace talks with the Palestinians.
In part to offset the political fallout from the release and calm the anger on the right, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office announced that the government would, this week, approve tenders for the construction of 1,200 new apartment units across the Green Line.
On Monday, Netanyahu called the decision to release the prisoners one of the most agonizing of his career.
“The decision to release prisoners is one of the toughest decisions that I’ve taken as prime minister,” Netanyahu told a Likud-Beytenu faction meeting. “I am certain that all the prime ministers who made this decision before me agonized over it as well, due to the injustice of villains being released before they serve the full term of their sentences. My heart is with the bereaved families, and it pains me. This decision is a necessity, given the reality in which we live.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report