Israel released Monday night 26 Palestinian prisoners jailed before the Oslo Accords, after the High Court of Justice rejected a petition by bereaved families to halt the move. This is the third group of prisoners released since the peace negotiations with the Palestinians began last July.
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Eight of the released prisoners, residents of the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, began making their way home at around 10 P.M. The remaining 18 were transferred after midnight from the Ofer Prison to Bitounai Checkpoint, from which they were taken to Ramallah, where they were welcomed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and thousands of citizens.
The prisoners from Gaza also recieved an official welcome after making their way through Erez Crossing.
Prior to the release, dozens of bereaved families marched through pouring rain on Monday evening from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem to the Old City to protest.
The Jerusalem Police and the families reached a compromise earlier in the evening, according to which 15 protesters alone were allowed to continue from the Western Wall to the home of one the release prisoners to stage a rally.
A number of protesters joined the 15, without permission, forcing police to intervene to disperse the unauthorized demonstrators.
Prior to reaching the prisoner's home, the protesters held signs declaring "Jewish blood will not be forsaken," "we will not give up," and "an ethical shame." Some 20 extreme right-wing activists joined the protesters at the entrance to the Old City, holding signs proclaiming "death to terrorists." A number of streets in the city were closed off due to the march, which took place in relative quiet.
Responding to the publication of the list of prisoners to be released, officials of the Palestinian Prisoner Society said on Sunday that the number of veteran prisoners in Israel is 107 and not 104 as stated by Israel. The society also demanded that 32 prisoners be included in the fourth round of prisoner releases, which is due to take place in April.
Comparing the Palestinian Authority and Israeli lists, it seems that there are three more prisoners than originally listed. One is Naim Shumri, who was arrested in 1995 and is considered to be seriously ill, prompting the PA to request his release without connection to the talks. The other two are Said Alarabli from Gaza, who was arrested in July 1994, and Said H’tatba of Nablus, who was arrested in September 1994. Shumri is due to be released on Monday, but the society called on PA President Mahmoud Abbas to add the three prisoners to the Palestinian list, so that the Alaragli and H’tatba would be released in the next round.
As in the two previous stages, the West Bank prisoners will be brought to the Bitounia checkpoint near Ramallah, while the three prisoners from Gaza will be delivered to the Erez Crossing. The West Bank prisoners will attend a ceremony with Abbas at the government compound in Ramallah before returning to their homes. The Gaza prisoners are also expected to attend celebrations at Beit Hanun, in the northern Gaza Strip.
The Palestinian Prisoner Society maintains that the first round of releases included Burhan Sabih, who wasn’t on the Palestinian list since he was arrested in 2001, when he served as an officer at the Preventive Security Force. Therefore, a total of 107 prisoners should be released.
The issue is expected to be raised in the talks Abbas will hold with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Ramallah on the weekend. According to Palestinian records, there will still be 32 veteran prisoners in Israeli jails after the current round of releases. Of those, 17 are from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, 14 are Israeli citizens and one is a Jerusalem resident.
Of the Israeli citizens, the most prominent are Karim and Maher Yunis, both of whom are beginning their 31st year in prison and are considered the longest serving Palestinian prisoners. The two, residents of Kfar Ara, were convicted of the murder of the soldier Avraham Brumberg in 1980. Their uncle, Sammy Yunis, who was the oldest and longest-serving prisoner, was released in the Gilad Shalit deal. In July 2012, a parole committee recommended that their sentences be commuted to between 35 and 40 years.
The list includes another five Israeli citizens arrested between 1986 and 1988.