Israel has released 26 Palestinian prisoners, the second of four groups to be freed in line with a deal which set peace talks back in motion. The decision was met with anger in Israel.
Another 26 veteran Palestinian prisoners crossed the Israeli border into the West Bank and the Gaza Strip early Wednesday to jubilant celebrations.
More than 2,000 people greeted 21 members of the group with cheers and fireworks after they travelled the short distance from the Ofer prison, near Jerusalem, to the Beitunia crossing in the West Bank. The group was then taken to nearby Ramallah where they were welcomed at an official ceremony by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The remaining five prisoners were met by hundreds of relatives and well-wishers as they passed through the Erez crossing into Gaza.
All 26 were convicted for killing Israeli's, with many having spent more than 20 years behind bars.
They were the second group of a total of 104 prisoners who were granted freedom by Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu as part of a deal brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry to resume peace talks following a three-year hiatus. The first tranche of 26 were freed on August 13. The third batch is to be released in December and a fourth in March.
Addressing the crowds alongside the newly freed prisoners in Ramallah, President Abbas made clear that a final peace deal with Israel was contingent on the release of all Palestinian prisoners.
"There will be no final agreement without the release of all the prisoners," he told the crowd.
Prisoner release prompts protests
Thousands of Palestinians have been imprisoned in Israel since the 1967 Mideast war, when Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem. Most are considered freedom fighters amongst Palestinians. Their crimes range from throwing rocks to killing civilians in attacks including bombings and shootings.
According to a list provided by Israel's prison service, those released on Wednesday include people convicted of killing an Israeli reservist and a Nazi concentration camp survivor. Most of the attacks occurred before the beginning of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in 1993 when the Oslo Accords granted the Palestinians limited self-rule, although failed to create an independent state.
In Israel, where the prisoners are widely considered terrorists, the latest release was met with anger.
Ahead of their release at least 50 Israeli's demonstrated outside the prison where they were being held to protest an Israeli Supreme Court decision to reject an appeal to cancel the release.
A separate protest on Monday attracted more than 1,000 people.
An organization of bereaved families behind the court appeal had argued that the prisoners would return to violence once freed.
ccp/ch (AFP, Reuters)