Israel-Palestinian peace talks resume in Jerusalem

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

The first direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in three years have been held in Jerusalem, officials say.

Both sides confirmed that the meeting - cloaked in secrecy - had ended late on Wednesday after several hours.

A senior Israeli official described the talks as "long and serious" but no statement was published.

The meeting began hours after Israel freed 26 Palestinian prisoners as part of the deal to restart the stalled negotiations.

Few details have been released about the location, timing or agenda of the talks and both sides have been cautious about achieving any breakthrough.

A Palestinian official quoted by AP news agency said they had agreed to meet weekly, alternating between Jerusalem and the West Bank town of Jericho.

Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem have continued to overshadow the resumption.

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

Israeli-Palestinian talks

  • Palestinian team leaders: Saeb Erekat and Muhammed Shtayyeh
  • Israeli team leaders: Tzipi Livni and Isaac Molcho
  • US mediators: Martin Indyk and Frank Lowenstein
  • Key issues: Status of Jerusalem; borders; security arrangements; settlements and possible land swaps; Palestinian refugees; recognition of Israel

In recent days Israel has announced plans for more than 2,000 new settlement homes.

Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) official Yasser Abed Rabbo said the settlement expansion was "unprecedented".

"The talks might collapse any time because of the Israeli practices," he told Voice of Palestine radio.

There has also been scepticism on the Israeli side.

The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday reported "extremely low" expectations 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."

However, Science and Technology Minister Yaakov Peri said an effort had to be made, adding: "We won't have a lot more chances to solve this conflict."

'First course'

The aim of the talks is to negotiate an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict based on the so-called two-state solution - a Palestinian state existing alongside Israel.

The Palestinians are being represented by Saeb Erekat and Fatah official Muhammed Shtayyeh.

Israeli Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni and prime ministerial aide Isaac Molcho are representing the Israeli side.

US Middle East Peace Envoy Martin Indyk and his deputy, Frank Lowenstein, have been named as envoys to the meeting.

Although the agenda has not been publicised, US Secretary of State John Kerry has previously said that all final-status issues - Jerusalem, borders, security arrangements, settlements and Palestinian refugees - are on the table.

Although no timeframe for these talks has been set, the US has said that final-status negotiations will be held for nine months.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated that Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state will be among the first issues, whereas the Palestinians have said borders and security top the agenda.

The Palestinians want their state to include land captured by Israel in 1967, but some 500,000 Israelis now live in settlements built on the occupied territories.

The settlements are considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this.

On Wednesday, Israeli Housing Minister Uri Ariel vowed to build "thousands of homes" in the West Bank, adding: "This is just the first course."

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

'Price of peace'

The issue of the Palestinian prisoner releases has been highly emotive for Israelis.

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

All those who were released had been convicted of murder or involvement in murder.

Mr 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 were a moral mistake.

An appeal by a victims' rights group that objected to all the releases was rejected by the Supreme Court.

But as the two buses carrying the first tranche of 26 Palestinians left Ayalon prison near Tel Aviv late on Tuesday, relatives of their victims, many with their hands painted red, jeered and briefly tried to block the road.

Israel has agreed to free a further 78 long-serving prisoners as part of the 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.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas greeted 11 prisoners as they arrived in the West Bank early on Wednesday, while crowds met the other 15 in Gaza.

The BBC's Yolande Knell says there was a festive atmosphere in the West Bank village of Beitunia.

The freed inmates were 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".

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.

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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