Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday lambasted Israel’s neighbors for celebrating the release overnight Monday of 26 Palestinian prisoners, saying the reaction reflected the difference between Israel and its negotiating partners.
“The essence of the difference between us and our neighbors can be seen in one picture,” Netanyahu said at the seventh annual Galilee Conference in Tiberias Tuesday, referring to the sight of throngs of Palestinians giving the released prisoners — almost all of them convicted of murder — a hero’s welcome.
“While we prepare to take very painful steps in an effort to try and reach an agreement that would end the conflict, they, along with their top leadership, are celebrating,” said the prime minister.
“Murderers are not heroes,” he declared. “This is not how one educates for peace.”
Late Monday, Israel released 26 Palestinian prisoners in the third phase of a four-stage prisoner release agreed on when US-arbitrated peace talks were renewed last summer. As bereaved Israeli families protested the release, which went ahead around midnight as planned, Arabs in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Jerusalem’s Old City greeted the arrivals with great fanfare.
Jailed since before the Oslo Accords of the mid-’90s, 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 throngs 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, were released as part of the deal.
In a speech outside the PA’s 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.”
In response to Abbas’s comments, Netanyahu said Tuesday, “This isn’t how peace is achieved.”
Urging the Palestinian Authority to put an end to “education toward incitement and the destruction of Israel,” Netanyahu said peace would be possible only if Israel’s security and housing needs were met and the country could defend itself.
“We have a genuine need for peace and security, but it doesn’t only depend on us. It also depends on our neighbors,” he said.
The prisoner release, as with the other two before it, was met in Israel with dismay and protests.
The High Court rejected a petition by families of terror victims to stop the release, and hundreds of people demonstrated in the capital against the move Monday.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.