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Peace talks to resume in Israel amid prisoner releases and airstrikes

Peace talks between Israel and Palestinians are set to resume. This comes amid air strikes and settlement building by Israelis on Palestinian territory and the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails.

Wednesday's talks will be the first direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians to take place in the region for more than three years. It follows a long campaign by United States Secretary of State John Kerry to bring both sides back to the negotiation table, with the first round of talks held in Washington on July 30.

Both sides have said they will try to reach a peace deal within nine months, with the main issue the demarcation of borders for a future Palestinian state.

The meeting is expected to begin on Wednesday (14.08.2013) at the King David Hotel in the presence of US mediator Martin Indyk. No start time was publicly provided.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is due to show support for the peace talks when he visits the region later this week, meeting with political leaders in Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Jordan.

Israeli air force strikes Gaza

Hours before the peace talks were due to begin in the city of Jerusalem, Israeli jets fired on the Gaza strip.

"The raid targeted two rocket launch sites after rockets were fired Tuesday from the Gaza Strip, one of which exploded on Israeli territory," a spokesman for the Israeli army said.

Israel's army said nobody was killed by the airstrike. There were also no reports of deaths or damage from the rocket that landed near the border city of Sderot.

Hamas, the Islamist movement which controls the Gaza Strip, opposes this latest round of peace negotiations.

Prisoners released

The first group of Palestinian prisoners to be released from Israeli jails in the lead-up to the peace talks has arrived back in the Palestinian territories. The 26 prisoners are the first of 104 scheduled to be released by Israel. Their release was part of a deal negotiated by US Secretary of State John Kerry to restart negotiations.

Of the prisoners freed so far, 15 were released into the Gaza Strip, and 11 went to the West Bank. In both locations there was a celebratory atmosphere as the prisoners arrived. Many of them had been convicted for deadly attacks on Israelis, all of them were jailed before the 1993 Oslo Accords.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas kissed some of the men as he welcomed them into Ramallah, the West Bank capital.

"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," Abbas said.

Tension over settlements

Over the past few days, Israel has announced it will build 3,100 new homes for Israeli settlers on occupied land the Palestinians claim for a future state. Most world powers regard the settlements as illegal.

A row over Israeli settlements led to the breakdown of the last direct peace talks in September 2010 between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Hours before the peace talks were due to resume, Israel's Housing Minister Uri Ariel insisted that "thousands" of Jewish homes would be built in the coming year in "Judea and Samaria", using the biblical term for the West Bank. "No-one dictates where we can build," he said.

Ariel's remarks followed confirmation by Israel this week that it would press ahead with 2,129 homes for settlers, a move which drew anger amongst Palestinians. "This settlement expansion is unprecedented," senior Palestine Liberation Organisation official Yasser Abed Rabbo told the AFP news agency on Tuesday. "It threatens to make talks fail even before they've started."

se/msh (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)