Outrage as Israel frees danger men
Israel's leader is facing public fury after releasing more than two dozen Palestinian prisoners convicted of deadly attacks in a US-brokered deal to restart Middle East peace talks.
After departing on buses from Israeli jails overnight, the prisoners received heroes' welcomes on their return to the West Bank and Gaza with officials and jubilant relatives lining up to greet them.
At his headquarters in Ramallah, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas waited to meet the men in the middle of the night. Speaking before thousands, he pledged to continue pressing for the release of long-serving and ill prisoners.
"We will not sign a final peace deal with Israel before all the prisoners are released," he said.
But in Israel, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced uproar from all sides over the move.
With Mr Netanyahu expected to accompany the releases with plans to build hundreds of new homes in Jewish settlements, the criticism came from some unlikely quarters.
Dovish supporters of peace talks said the expected construction would destroy any goodwill created by the prisoner release, while hardline allies criticised Mr Netanyahu for linking the Jewish settlement cause with the release of prisoners convicted over killings of mostly Israelis.
Mr Netanyahu hit back, telling members of his Likud Party yesterday: "Leadership is judged by the ability to implement decisions, difficult as they may be . We were not elected to make easy decisions."
Under a formula drawn up by US secretary of state John Kerry, Israel agreed last summer to free a total of 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners in order to restart peace talks with the Palestinians.
In exchange, the Palestinians dropped their long-standing demand for Israel to halt building of homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, areas captured by Israel in 1967 that they claim for their future state.
The Palestinians say they have received vague assurances that Israel would show restraint while the talks continue until an April target date for an agreement.
The latest prisoner release is the third of four planned stages. It was carried out overnight to avoid the larger spectacle of having to witness the celebrations over the killers' freedom.
All 26 of the men have been convicted of deadly attacks and have spent between 19 and 28 years in prison. They included 18 men from the West Bank, three Gazans, and in a concession by Israel, five men from east Jerusalem.
Israel considers east Jerusalem to be part of its capital and has previously baulked at allowing the Palestinians to negotiate on behalf of prisoners living in what it considers to be Israeli territory.
Israel's annexation of east Jerusalem is not internationally recognised and the vast majority of Arab residents in the area hold residency rights but are not Israeli citizens.
The coming releases generated excitement throughout Palestinian society, where prisoners held by Israel are revered as heroes and freedom fighters. Families decorated their homes and neighbourhoods with posters of their loved ones who were returning home and planned large feasts.
The family of Ahmed Shihadeh was busy preparing a welcoming celebration in the Qalandia refugee camp in the West Bank. Shihadeh, 51, has spent nearly 29 years in prison after being convicted of the murder of an alleged collaborator with Israel.
In the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Jabal al-Mukaber, the sound of kettle drums and ululating women filled the air as residents braced for the return of Jamal Abu Jamal, who has spent nearly 20 years in prison for a stabbing attack.
Women holding Abu Jamal's picture sang and danced in circles and praised Mr Abbas for securing his release. His mother Rayouf, 77, who is unable to speak after suffering two strokes, sat in a chair with tears in her eyes.
"Since she heard the news, she's getting better," said Abu Jamal's sister Huda. "I can't express how happy she is."
Israeli opponents of the prisoner release have staged days of protests against the releases. A group representing the families appealed to the supreme court to block the release, but it was rejected last night.
Amir Peretz, a cabinet minister with the dovish Movement party, said the painful site of watching convicted killers walk free could have been avoided had Mr Netanyahu agreed to freeze settlement building.
"I would have preferred to freeze settlement building rather than releasing (Palestinian) prisoners but at this point we must allow this stage to move forward, we must not do anything to prevent it," he said.
But settler leader Dani Dayan said: "The linkage between the release of convicted terrorists and the construction in Jerusalem and in Judea and Samaria puts an unnecessary stain on the construction.
The "original sin", he said, was agreeing to release any prisoners in the first place. "Israel should have rejected the notion that it has to pay a price for negotiations," he said.
Israeli commentators have also questioned Mr Netanyahu's judgment in pushing forward with more settlements.
"If Netanyahu has already undertaken to make this goodwill gesture, it would be best if he were to enjoy the international dividend that comes with it and not ruin things with a populist announcement about new construction," said Shimon Shiffer, a columnist with the Yediot Ahronot daily paper.
"Netanyahu is like a cow that gives a bucketful of milk, only to kick the bucket over."