Israel has successfully released 26 Palestinian prisoners as part of a deal to keep US-sponsored peace talks alive, despite ongoing disagreements over plans to build more settlements on disputed land.
The handover took place in the dead of night during the small hours of Wednesday morning, with a small number of Palestinians hurling rocks at Israeli military vehicles escorting the prison convoy taking 11 to the West Bank.
They were met by a welcoming party of hundreds, including President Mahmoud Abbas. The other 15 ex-prisoners were taken to the Gaza strip, under the control of Mr Abbas’s Islamist rivals Hamas.
The president told a crowd in the West Bank capital Ramallah: “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.”
After the successful return of the prisoners, many of whom had already served jail terms of around 20 years for deadly attacks on Israelis, negotiators were due to return to meetings in Jerusalem later on Wednesday.
Despite anger from the families of some victims, Israel has promised to free a total 104 inmates in the coming months, in measures aimed at meeting US Secretary of State John Kerry’s target of a deal within nine months.
Among those released was a Palestinian convicted in the 1994 killing of Isaac Rotenberg, a 69-year-old Holocaust survivor who was attacked with an axe as he was working at a construction site.
Others were convicted in the killings of Ian Feinberg, an Israeli lawyer killed in a European aid office in Gaza in 1993, and Frederick Rosenfeld, an American killed while hiking in the West Bank in 1989.
On Monday, Israel's prison service published the names of the 26 in order to allow for possible appeals, but the Supreme Court quickly turned away objections from the families of those killed by the prisoners.
Earlier, Israel sparked anger when it announced it was moving forward with plans to build nearly 900 new settlement homes in east Jerusalem. The Palestinians initially refused to return to the negotiating table, until the prisoner release was offered as part of a bargain to restart talks.
They argue that even existing settlements, now home to more than 500,000 Israelis, make the problem of establishing territories increasingly difficult.
Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, said the plans are “not just deliberate sabotage of the talks, but really a destruction of the outcome”.
She urged Mr Kerry "to stand up to Israel" and deliver a tough response.
Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, rejected the Palestinian claim, saying: “The construction that the Israeli government authorised is all in Jerusalem and the large blocs, in areas that will remain part of Israel in any possible final status agreement and this construction that has been authorised in no way changes the final map of peace.”
Mr Kerry said he had spoken with Mr Netanyahu yesterday morning. “We had a very frank and open discussion on the issue of settlements,” he said. “Let me make it clear. The policy of the United States with respect to all settlements is that they are illegitimate and we oppose settlements taking place anytime.”