Israel released 26 Palestinian prisoners early Tuesday morning, setting off a fanfare of celebration in the West Bank after days of Israeli protests.
The release was the third phase of four planned prisoner discharges, agreed to as a confidence-building measure as part of ongoing peace talks.
Jailed since before the Oslo Accords of 1993, all 26 men had been convicted of violent crimes, including murders and terror attacks. Click here for a list of the convicts and their offenses.
In Ramallah, 18 of the prisoners were greeted at 1 a.m. Tuesday morning by a throng of thousands, including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, with officials and jubilant relatives lining up to kiss and embrace the newly freed men. The released prisoners then proceeded via red carpet into the Muqata’a, the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority, where they laid a wreath at the grave of Yasser Arafat.
Earlier in the night, three prisoners were transferred to the Gaza Strip via the Erez Crossing and five were sent to East Jerusalem, marking the first time residents of the capital — eligible for Israeli citizenship, though none of them are Israeli citizens — were released as part of the deal.
In a speech outside the PA’s Ramallah headquarters, Abbas said there would be “no final agreement with Israel until all of the prisoners are freed.”
“Today is a day of joy for our people, our families and our prisoner heroes,” he said. “We promise that this won’t be the last time that prisoners are released.”
The release, as with the other two before it, was met in Israel with dismay and protests.
Though the High Court rejected a petition by families of terror victims to stop the release, hundreds of people still demonstrated in the capital against the move Monday.
“Leadership is judged by the ability to implement decisions, difficult as they may be,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told members of his Likud party on Monday. “We were not elected to make easy decisions.”
Israeli critics of the releases put the blame on Netanyahu and the powerful settler lobby, with many charging that the government should have chosen to stop settlement construction instead of freeing convicted murderers to build confidence between the sides.
Netanyahu, for his part, is expected to approve plans to build 1,400 new homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the coming days.
The US State Department praised the prime minister for releasing the prisoners.
“The Israeli government’s commitment to release Palestinian prisoners helped enable the start and continuation of the final status negotiations, and we believe this is a positive step forward in the overall process,” said State Department spokesperson Marie Harf. US Secretary of State John Kerry plans to return to Jerusalem and Ramallah later this week.
On Monday night, dozens of protesters 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 released.
The organizers, representing victims of terror attacks and other opponents of the prisoner releases, had originally gone to court to be allowed to protest, but eventually came to a deal with police that only a limited number 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 on Monday during a protest in front of the Prime Minister’s Residence against the releases. 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 throughout Monday, as the coming releases generated wide excitement in 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 kettledrums 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 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 a move that could upset peace efforts, the Knesset’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved a bill Sunday that would annex a section of the West Bank near the Israeli-Jordanian border. Netanyahu has said Israel must maintain a presence in the area, known as the Jordan Valley, as a security measure. Even so, it appears unlikely the bill, supported by hard-line lawmakers unhappy with peace efforts, will receive parliamentary approval.
In his comments early Tuesday at the ceremony for released prisoners, Abbas rejected the move. “This is Palestinian land and we will not let them do it,” he said.
AP contributed to this report.