Two buses containing 26 Palestinian prisoners convicted of terrorism 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 11 Palestinians arrived at the Ofer Prison outside Ramallah in the West Bank at 11 p.m. Tuesday for final processing before the high-profile prisoners were transferred to the Palestinian Authority.
A second bus carrying 15 Palestinians to Gaza arrived at the Erez crossing on Tuesday night as well.
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 set to take place soon after midnight Tuesday night in order to minimize the publicity surrounding the event.
Celebrations were planned for the releases in both Ramallah and Gaza, with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other dignitaries attending the Ramallah festivities.
The prisoners, many of them convicted of murderous acts of terrorism, are the first of 104 to be freed from Israeli prisons as a goodwill gesture agreed by Israel to enable the restart of peace talks, which were set to resume in Jerusalem on Wednesday.
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, have vociferously opposed the prisoner release.
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.
“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.”
Ricky Ben David and Stuart Winer contributed to this report.