December 10, 2013
Israel frees 26 Palestinian prisoners in amnesty
Israel freed 26 Palestinian prisoners, the second stage of a limited amnesty designed to help US-sponsored peace talks that have been dogged by divisions on both sides.
The inmates, convicted of murder in the killing of Israelis before or just after interim accords were signed two decades ago, were bussed from jail at midnight to welcoming parties in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Though thousands of Palestinians remain in Israeli custody, the releases could help the credibility of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's engagement with the Jewish state, which is scorned by armed Islamist Hamas rivals who rule Gaza.
Negotiations between Abbas's administration and Israel resumed in Washington in July after a three-year halt. Held in secret, they have done little to reassure Palestinians who worry about Jewish settlement of the West Bank or Israelis who doubt Abbas could hold Hamas to any future peace agreement.
Yet neither side in the talks wants to disappoint an Obama administration which has ranked reconciling them as a top Middle East policy goal. Another is curbing Iran's disputed nuclear programme, in which Israel sees a mortal menace.
"As one who spent most of his adult life fighting Palestinian terror, in Israel and abroad, this is no easy event for me," Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said in a speech, referring to the prisoner release.
He said that Israel "has been confronted with sensitive diplomatic circumstances and weighty strategic considerations in recent months, which require that we take difficult and painful steps. This is not a black-and-white situation."
In all, 104 long-serving inmates will go free. A first group of 26 were let out in August as part of understandings reached during shuttle diplomacy by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who set a 9-month framework for the negotiations.
Hundreds of prisoners' relatives and well-wishers gathered at Abbas's office in the West Bank city of Ramallah to receive 21 of the released men with predawn celebrations. "Our heroes are coming home, long live the prisoners," they chanted.
The other five ex-prisoners went to Gaza, where similar festivities were prepared just over the border from Israel.