Israel freed 26 Palestinian prisoners early yesterday, the second of four batches to be released as part of a deal that set in motion the current Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
The decision to release the 26 has triggered anguish and anger in Israel, where many view the men as terrorists who have committed grisly crimes against Israelis, but jubilant celebrations erupted in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where the prisoners are seen as heroes who fought for independence, as they were received by their families and Palestinian leaders.
Yesterday’s release was part of an agreement brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry that brought Israel and the Palestinians back to the table for peace talks that had been paralyzed since 2008. In all, 104 convicts are to be released in four rounds over the coming months.
In the West Bank and Gaza, the mood was boisterous as hundreds of relatives and well-wishers welcomed the prisoners home, after many had spent more than 20 years behind bars.
Throngs of people rushed toward the five prisoners released to Gaza, hoisting them on their shoulders, waving Palestinian flags and bopping to blaring music. Relatives held signs that read “we will never forget our heroes.”
More than 2,000 people welcomed the 21 prisoners released to the West Bank, who were greeted at a ceremony by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.
Hazem Shubair, who was jailed in 1994 for the death of an Israeli, according to the Israeli Prison Service, was overwhelmed upon his release to Gaza.
“I am speechless,” Shubair said. “Thanks to God. God is greater than the aggressors.”
Earlier, his brother Tayser called Hazem a “freedom fighter.”
Thousands of Palestinians have been held in Israeli prisons since Israel’s capture of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war, many jailed on charges ranging from throwing rocks to killing civilians in bombings, shootings and other attacks. The Palestinians want those territories for their future state.
Standing alongside the newly freed prisoners, Abbas said a final peace deal with Israel was contingent on the release of prisoners held in its jails.
“There will be no final agreement without the release of all the prisoners,” he told the raucous crowd.
The fate of the prisoners is an emotional issue in Palestinian society. After decades of fighting Israel, many families have had a member imprisoned and the release of prisoners has been a longstanding demand.
Among those freed yesterday were people jailed in connection with the killings of Israelis, including a reservist and a Nazi death camp survivor, according to a list provided by Israel’s prison service. Many of the killings occurred before the beginning of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in 1993.
Israel’s Supreme Court earlier rejected an appeal that sought to cancel the prisoner release. An organization of bereaved families behind the appeal has said it fears the prisoners would return to violence once freed.