Israel frees new batch of 26 Palestinian inmates

The BBC's Yolande Knell describes how the former inmates were welcomed

Israel has released the second of four batches of 26 Palestinian prisoners, as part of a deal for the resumption of peace talks.

Five prisoners were released in Gaza, while the other 21 were sent to the West Bank.

Those freed were all convicted of murders and had spent between 19 and 28 years in prison.

Israeli and Palestinian officials resumed direct talks in Jerusalem in August after a three-year hiatus.

Fireworks

The BBC's Yolande Knell reports from the West Bank that those who have been freed are seen there as political prisoners and heroes of the Palestinian cause - but that the decision has been hugely unpopular with the Israeli public.

At the scene

It was not until after 01:00 that 21 prisoners arrived at the Muqataa presidential headquarters in Ramallah after being released from Israel's Ofer Prison nearby.

Their relatives and supporters had waited for hours and began whistling, cheering and ululating. As the men descended from the stage they lifted them on to their shoulders and carried them off through the crowds.

A prisoner's elderly mother, Amuna Abed Rabbo, had come from Bethlehem in a wheelchair wearing her traditional embroidered dress. "Thank God my son returned back to me before I die. I have all the happiness in the world," she said.

By contrast, the families of those killed by these former inmates are angry and upset. Esther Caspi, the widow of an Israeli taxi driver murdered by a Palestinian man who was set free, told Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper: "We shouldn't release prisoners who have committed murder because they will do it again."

The Palestinians released early on Wednesday were driven from Israel's Ofer prison to the Erez crossing into Gaza and the Beituna crossing into the West Bank.

In Gaza, fireworks shot into the sky as the former inmates were driven away in a convoy. In the West Bank, the freed prisoners were taken to Ramallah, where Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas addressed a large crowd.

Mr Abbas said the next batch of prisoners would be released in two months, and called for all Palestinians to be freed.

"There will be no final agreement without the release of all the prisoners,'' he said.

He also denied rumours that the deal for the prisoner release had been made on the understanding that Israel could continue building settlements.

The release has caused tensions within Israel's governing coalition, with far-right parties trying and failing to stop it going ahead.

Shortly after the prisoners were freed, Israeli media reported that the government had announced that it would build 1,500 new homes in the east Jerusalem settlement of Ramat Shlomo.

The move was seen as an effort to mollify government hardliners. Talks between Israel and the Palestinians were suspended in 2010 after an Israeli freeze on settlement construction expired.

Protests

All but one of those released on Thursday were imprisoned for murders committed before the signing of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords.

Palestinians await the release of prisoners at the Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza, 30 October 2013 Crowds gathered at the Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza ahead of the release
Freed Palestinian prisoner at Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza, 29 October 2013 Freed prisoners were carried away on the shoulders of those who had come to welcome them
Israeli protests against release of Palestinian prisoners, 29 October Ahead of the release, Israelis protested outside Ofer prison on the outskirts of Jerusalem

The longest serving prisoner, Isa Abed Rabbo, was convicted of murdering two students while they were hiking south of Jerusalem in October 1984.

A list of the prisoners was published 48 hours before the releases, to allow victims' families to appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court against the freeing - but the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by an organisation for bereaved families.

There have been large protests in Israel in recent days. Demonstrators on Wednesday held signs that read "death to murderers".

Conditions over freedom of movement are often attached to prisoner releases by Israel but these have sometimes been broken in the past, with freed Palestinians being rearrested, our correspondent says.

The first batch of Palestinian prisoners was freed in Gaza and the West Bank on 14 August.

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