Israel freed 26 Palestinian prisoners yesterday, days before US Secretary of State John Kerry was due back in the Middle East to press the two sides to agree a framework peace deal.
Israel agreed to release a total of 104 Palestinian prisoners as part of a US-brokered package that in July revived peace talks after a three-year break.
Yesterday’s release was the third of four groups to go free.
On Friday last week, an Israeli official said plans would be announced after the release to build 1,400 homes for Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank, territory Palestinians seek for a state along with the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
Jailed before or just after the first Israeli-Palestinian interim peace accord was signed 20 years ago, the inmates boarded buses for home outside Ofer prison in the West Bank as Israelis protested in East Jerusalem against the amnesty.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas greeted the men at his headquarters in Ramallah.
“We promise you this will not be the last time and there will be more groups of heroes coming to us frequently in the near future, God willing,” Abbas said.
Jamal Abu Musin, convicted in Israel on murder charges and freed yesterday, said: “The message of prisoners is that people will not forget them, they hope to be released and they live with hope.”
Three of the prisoners were sent to the Gaza Strip, which is under the rule of Abbas’ rival, the Islamist group Hamas. It rejects peace talks with Israel.
“The heroes are back,” hundreds chanted as they carried the men through the enclave’s streets.
Hours before the release dozens of Israelis marched toward the East Jerusalem home of one of the prisoners, carrying black umbrellas and holding pictures of those killed or wounded in attacks.
“Releasing terrorists in the name of peace is like pouring fuel on a fire in order to put the fire out. It’s going to explode in your face,” said Yonah, one of the demonstrators.
US Department of State spokeswoman Marie Harf said the release was a “positive step forward” and officials said Kerry would be travelling to the region today to meet Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The US is seeking to broker an agreement on a “two-state solution” in which Israel would exist peacefully alongside a new Palestinian state.
Kerry has been pressing the sides to agree a framework for a final settlement ahead of an agreed late April target date for the talks to conclude.
He will also have to quell tensions that rose after an Israeli ministerial committee on Sunday gave initial approval to a bill annexing Jordan Valley settlements, in a largely symbolic move expected to be shot down by the government.
Abbas slammed the ministerial decision in his remarks yesterday to the freed prisoners.
“This is a Palestinian area,” the Palestinian leader said. “It’s a red line nobody can cross.”
The Palestinian Cabinet meeting yesterday was scheduled to take place in that contested territory.
Additional reporting by AFP