Israel began the process of releasing 26 Palestinian prisoners late Monday night, after the High Court rejected an appeal to stop the discharge.
In Jerusalem, dozens of people, including family members of terror victims, protested the move, the third in a series of releases as part of ongoing peace negotiations.
Three prisoners who were to be released to Gaza were loaded into vans to make their way to the Erez crossing, and five more began the short journey from Ofer prison in the West Bank to East Jerusalem, where they live. The full complement of prisoners were to be released after midnight.
The five are the first East Jerusalemites to be released as part of the four-stage deal, which will see 104 prisoners go free. They will be released to an undisclosed location, and the rest will be transferred to the West Bank, where they are expected to be greeted with fanfare.
The High Court rejected the petition by the Almagor Terror Victims Association to stop the release, as it has done twice before since August.
Almagor had claimed that allowing the release of convicted terrorists into East Jerusalem would give the Palestinian Authority a claim over the city.
Despite criticism from the right and left, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the release as a necessary, albeit tough, move for peace.
“Leadership is judged by the ability to implement decisions, difficult as they may be,” Netanyahu told members of his Likud party. “We were not elected to make easy decisions.”
Protests in Israel have intensified in the run-up to the planned release, with grieving families and others holding demonstrations in the capital against the move.
On Monday night, dozens of people armed with black umbrellas marched from the Prime Minister’s Residence to the Old City of Jerusalem, where 15 of them demonstrated outside the home of Ahmed Halaf, one of the 26 prisoners slated to be released.
The organizers had originally gone to court to be allowed to protest, but eventually came to a deal with police that only a limited amount of people would approach the home of Halaf.
Earlier in the day, dozens of people protested at the entrance to Jerusalem, attempting to burn tires and block the main road into the city before being stopped by police.
Two people were arrested just after midnight Sunday during a protest in front of the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem against the release of the 26 Palestinian prisoners.
The protesters tried to run past the security guards at the entrance to Netanyahu’s home, banging on pots and yelling out slogans against the government’s decision to release the inmates.
It was the mirror image in the West Bank, as the coming releases generated excitement throughout Palestinian society, where prisoners held by Israel are revered as heroes and freedom fighters. Families decorated their homes and neighborhoods with posters of their loved ones who were returning home and planned large feasts.
The family of Ahmed Shihadeh was busy preparing a welcoming celebration in the Qalandiya refugee camp in the West Bank. Shihadeh, 51, has spent nearly 29 years in prison after being convicted in the murder of an alleged collaborator with Israel.
His mother, Haseba, 75, said she has “spent my life” visiting her son, but hasn’t been able to make the trip for the past two years because she can no longer walk. “I’ve visited him in 14 jails. I would leave my kids screaming and go for a visit,” she said.
In the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Jabal Mukaber, the sound of kettle drums and ululating women filled the air as residents braced for the return of Jamal Abu Jamal, who has spent nearly 20 years in prison for a stabbing attack.
Women holding Abu Jamal’s picture sang and danced in circles and praised Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for securing his release. His mother, Rayouf, 77, who is unable to speak after suffering two strokes, sat in a chair with tears in her eyes.
“Since she heard the news, she’s getting better,” said Abu Jamal’s sister Huda. “I can’t express how happy she is.”
In an apparent attempt to blunt domestic criticism of such releases, Netanyahu is expected to approve plans to build 1,400 new homes in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the coming days.
Netanyahu’s decision to press forward with settlement construction at such a sensitive time has drawn criticism from all directions.
Amir Peretz, a Cabinet minister with the dovish Hatnua party, said the painful sight of watching convicted killers walk free could have been avoided had Netanyahu agreed to freeze settlement construction.
“I would have preferred to freeze settlement building rather than releasing (Palestinian) prisoners, but at this point we must allow this stage to move forward, we must not do anything to prevent it,” he said.
Settler leader Dani Dayan, on the other hand, said the timing of a new settlement announcement looked bad. “The linkage between the release of convicted terrorists and the construction in Jerusalem and in Judea and Samaria puts an unnecessary stain on the construction,” he said.
The “original sin,” he added, was agreeing to release any prisoners in the first place. “Israel should have rejected the notion that it has to pay a price for negotiations,” he said.
On Sunday night, left-wing Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz, a staunch supporter of peace talks with the Palestinians, said he surprised observers by coming out against the release during an interview with Channel 10′s Dan Margalit.
“He asked me again and again if he had heard correctly, that I object to the release of terrorists now,” Horowitz wrote in a statement posted to his Facebook page. ”So I say it here again, in the clearest way possible: It is folly to release terrorists at such a stage of the negotiations, and certainly when [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu links the release to settlement construction. And what do we get at the end of the day? Wounds, bruises, a scourge. We are releasing murderers and also building in places where it is clear that we will not remain” under a permanent peace deal with the Palestinians.
On Saturday night, a panel of Israeli Cabinet ministers approved the list of 26 Palestinian prisoners to be released on Monday.
All of the prisoners on the list (Hebrew PDF), save three, were convicted of murdering Israeli civilians or soldiers, or are Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel. In a press release Saturday night, the Prime Minister’s Office said all of the inmates had been convicted of offenses committed prior to the signing of the Oslo Accords in mid-1990s.
Almost all of them were given life sentences, although a few would have been up for release in the next decade. They have all served between 19 and 28 years of their terms. Click here for a list of the convicts and their offenses.