Israel completed early Wednesday the release of 26 Palestinian prisoners as part of the resumption of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. This was the second group of prisoners to be freed, after the first was released two months ago.
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Twenty-one prisoners were welcomed at President Mahmoud Abbas' headquarters in Ramallah by Abbas, Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and other Palestinian cabinet members. The prisoners placed a wreath on the grave of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and only later were received by family members.
Five out of the 26 prisoners were released to Gaza.
The inmates, all of whom were convicted of murder in the killing of Israelis before or just after the Oslo Accords, the first interim Israeli-Palestinian agreement, were signed 20 years ago.
"We welcome our brothers the heroes coming from behind the bars to a world of freedom and liberty," Abbas told the crowd. "This is the second celebration and in two months there will be a third and then a fourth" until all prisoners will be released, he added.
The Palestinian president pledged that he would not sign a peace agreement with Israel that does not include the release of all Palestinian prisoners.
Abbas also brushed off criticism that the Palestinian Authority agreed to Israeli settlement construction in return for the prisoners' and said that the settlements were illegitimate and unacceptable.
Thousands also gathered in northern Gaza, near the Eraz crossing. The Hamas government did not try to stop the celebration and allowed the media to broadcast the events in Ramallah.
Cutting short the life sentences of the Palestinian prisoners has been particularly grating for many Israelis because prisoner releases were a Palestinian condition for reviving peace talks last August that few people on either side of the conflict believe will succeed.
A first group of 26 was let out two months ago in keeping with understandings reached during shuttle diplomacy by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Israel's High Court of Justice on Tuesday rejected a petition submitted by the families of terror victims against the release of the prisoners. The Almagor group, which represents the relatives of terror victims and other bereaved families, routinely submits these petitions and the High Court routinely rejects them, ruling that the government has the power to authorize a ministerial committee to decide on prisoner releases and that such actions do not require legislation for approval.
"The release of terrorists in return for (Israeli chief negotiator) Tzipi Livni's dubious right to meet (Palestinian counterpart Saeb) Erekat is very grave," Habayit Hayehudi, a far-right member of the government, said in statement at the weekend.
In an apparent attempt to appease Habayit Hayehudi and hardliners within Likud, government officials said new housing projects would be announced soon in West Bank settlement blocs that Israel intends to keep in any future peace deal.