Israel releases 26 Palestinian prisoners ahead of talks

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas greeted the released prisoners, as Yolande Knell reports

Israel has released 26 Palestinian prisoners as part of a deal that will see peace talks resume on Wednesday.

Buses carrying the inmates drove them from a prison in central Israel to the Beitunia checkpoint in the West Bank and the Erez crossing with Gaza.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas greeted the 11 sent to the West Bank, while crowds met the other 15 in Gaza.

Israeli and Palestinian representatives are set to begin direct talks in Jerusalem after a three-year hiatus.

Few details have been released from either side about the location, timing or agenda of the talks, but some reports say US mediator Martin Indyk will be present.

The resumption continues to be overshadowed by the issue of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

On Wednesday, Israeli Housing Minister Uri Ariel vowed to build "thousands of homes" in the West Bank.

The issue halted the last direct talks in September 2010 and Palestinian representatives have accused Israel of trying to sabotage the latest negotiations.

'Sun of freedom'

The BBC's Yolande Knell says there was a festive atmosphere in the West Bank village of Beitunia when the freed prisoners passed through the nearby checkpoint early on Wednesday.

At the scene

After hours of waiting near the Erez checkpoint between Israel and Gaza, there was an emotional outpouring from the large crowd as the 15 Palestinians released from Israeli jails arrived here. The bus carrying the men struggled to make its way forward. There were fireworks and celebratory gun shots were fired into the air.

Despite the deep political dispute between Hamas, which governs Gaza, and the Fatah movement of the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, flags for the two factions fluttered side-by-side.

Most of the former detainees brought to Gaza belong to Fatah. Only one belongs to Hamas, which has strongly rejected the deal to resume peace talks with Israel.

The sister of one man who spent a quarter of a century in an Israeli prison cried as she told me: "Thanks to Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas]. He's introduced joy to all our hearts today."

Hamas welcomed their release but spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told the BBC it was a cheap deal if Mr Abbas wanted to sell rights and Palestinian land to Israel in return.

The men were then driven to the Muqataa presidential compound in Ramallah, where they were kissed and embraced by President Abbas.

In a speech, he said he would not rest "until we free all the prisoners from Israeli jails".

"We congratulate ourselves and our families for our brothers who left the darkness of the prisons for the light of the sun of freedom. We say to them and to you that the remainder are on their way, these are just the first," he added.

Later, the former prisoners were mobbed by relatives, friends and well-wishers.

Israel has agreed to free a further 78 long-serving prisoners as part of a deal to revive the peace process. The releases will take place in four tranches over a period of nine months, depending on progress in the talks.

In the northern Gaza Strip, hundreds of people gathered at the Palestinian side of the Erez crossing. Fireworks lit the night sky, as supporters of the rival Hamas and Fatah factions made victory signs and waved flags.

A mother of one of the released prisoners, Atta Abu Mussa, told Agence France-Presse: "I didn't see my son Atya for eight years, I thought I was going to die before I saw him again. I am so happy."

Earlier in the evening, two buses carrying the 26 Palestinians, many of whom were convicted of grisly killings, left Ayalon prison near Tel Aviv. Relatives of their victims, many with their hands painted red, jeered and briefly tried to block the road.

The released prisoners were named by the Israeli Prison Service shortly after midnight on Sunday, giving Israelis 48 hours to submit legal challenges to the Supreme Court. The court rejected an appeal by a victims' rights group that objected to all the releases on Tuesday.

Kevin Connolly speaks to the brother of a murdered Israeli, and a former Palestinian prisoner

The prisoners are seen as heroes of the Palestinian cause, but on the Israeli side they are simply seen as terrorists, our correspondent says.

"I want to see this 'hero' coming back home, saying that he killed a 34-year-old pregnant woman and a five-year old kid," said Avi Moses, who lost his wife and son in a bomb attack in 1987. "They should be ashamed of themselves. They are cowards."

Israeli Science and Technology Minister Yaakov Peri said the releases were "part of the price of pursuing peace with our neighbours".

He said: "The ramifications of not returning to the negotiating table are dozens of times weightier than releasing the prisoners."

However, Deputy Defence Minister Danny Danon has said the releases are a moral mistake.

'First course'

The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday reported "extremely low" expectations from the Israeli side about the latest talks.

It quoted Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon as saying: "We've been trying for 20 years since Oslo, and for over 120 years of the conflict. The scepticism in the tone of my remarks is apparent, but we've decided to give it a chance."

Israeli President Shimon Peres: "One state for the two nations means to internalise the conflict between us"

For the Palestinians, the talks continue to be overshadowed by Israel's announcements in recent days of plans for more than 2,000 settlement homes in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Senior Palestine Liberation Organisation official Yasser Abed Rabbo told AFP: "This settlement expansion is unprecedented... it threatens to make talks fail even before they've started."

About 500,000 Jews live in more than 100 settlements built since Israel's 1967 occupation of the areas. The settlements are considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this.

On Wednesday, Mr Ariel, a member of the Jewish Home party, told public radio that thousands more homes would be built in the West Bank, adding: "This is just the first course."

On Monday, US Secretary of State John Kerry urged the Palestinians "not to react adversely" to the settlement announcements, saying US opposition had been "communicated... very clearly to Israel".

In a separate development on Wednesday, the Israeli military said it had carried out air strikes on rocket-launching sites in northern Gaza.

The strikes were launched overnight in response to the firing of two rockets from Gaza towards the Israeli town of Sderot, the military added.

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