Israel released early Wednesday 26 Palestinian prisoners convicted of killing Israelis or suspected Palestinian collaborators, a move agreed to as part of U.S.-brokered peace talks resumed three months ago.
Many of the prisoners were serving life terms for murder, the second group of 104 long-serving inmates who are being freed in four stages. The first group of 26 was released in August.
In an effort to minimize the Palestinian fanfare surrounding the release, which drew sharp criticism from rightist members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's governing coalition and relatives of the Israeli victims, the prisoners were released past midnight, early Wednesday.
Still, they were given a heroes' welcome in the West Bank at the Palestinian presidential compound in Ramallah, where hundreds of relatives and friends of the prisoners gathered in a boisterous celebration, cheering, singing and dancing.
"We welcome our brothers the heroes coming from behind the bars to a world of freedom and liberty," Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told the crowd, flanked by the freed prisoners. "There will be no agreement as long as a single prisoner remains behind bars."
Welcoming crowds also gathered to meet freed prisoners in the Gaza Strip, near the Erez Crossing from Israel.
Having failed to secure an Israeli promise to freeze settlement in the West Bank as a condition for the resumption of negotiations, Palestinian officials had insisted on the release of long-serving prisoners jailed before the 1993 Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Wednesday's release went ahead after the Israeli Supreme Court rejected a petition against the move by relatives of Israelis killed in Palestinian attacks, saying the government was authorized to carry it out. Rightist demonstrators chanted "Death to terrorists" outside the prison where the freed inmates were being held.
Netanyahu told a meeting of his Likud faction on Monday that the decision to free the prisoners was "one of the most difficult I've taken as prime minister" and that "my heart goes out to the bereaved families." But he added that the decision was "a necessity given the reality in which we live," and that "we have to navigate in a complex international arena full of challenges."
The decision to carry out the second phase of the prisoner release exposed a rift in Netanyahu's coalition, drawing fire from the rightist Jewish Home party, a senior partner in the government, which tried unsuccessfully to submit legislation banning further prisoner releases.
Naftali Bennett, the minister of economics and leader of Jewish Home, vowed that the party would continue to act against "the future release of terrorists," but he made no move to bolt the coalition. His pro-settlement party opposes a Palestinian state, the object of the renewed peace talks, but has said it will not leave the government over the resumption of negotiations.
In a move to appease the rightist flank of his coalition, officials in Netanyahu's office said he would approve new building plans in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. Israel Radio reported early Wednesday that Netanyahu had met with his housing minister to advance plans for 1,500 new homes in the Jewish neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, built on West Bank land annexed to Jerusalem.
Twenty-one of the prisoners released Wednesday were from the West Bank and five from the Gaza Strip; they had served 19 to 28 years of their sentences, according to a statement from Netanyahu's office.
They include Omar Issa Masoud, convicted of the 1993 slaying in Gaza of Ian Feinberg, a lawyer who was working with a European aid group to arrange loans to local businessmen. Another is Hazem Shbeir, jailed for the 1994 ax murder of Isaac Rotenberg, a 67-year-old Holocaust survivor, at a construction site where they worked. Also freed was Ahmad Damouni, convicted for killing Amnon Pomerantz, an army reservist killed in 1990 when his car was stoned and burned after he accidentally drove into the Bureij refugee camp in the Gaza Strip.
Interviewed on Israel Radio before the release, Damouni's older brother, Mahmoud, said he had seen his brother only once since he was jailed, and that when they meet there would be "tears, only tears."
"Enough, we were killed and you were killed," Mahmoud Damouni added, speaking Hebrew in a message to the families of the Israeli victims. "Every house in Gaza and the West Bank has a prisoner, someone who was killedand there are many such Jewish houses. And I say to the two sides, enough."
But in protests this week, relatives of the slain Israelis expressed outrage. Meirav Osher, the daughter of an Israeli settler stabbed to death in 1991 by his Palestinian worker in the Jordan Valley in the West Bank, demonstrated against the release of the killer, holding up a picture of her slain father.
"The justice system did no justice," she told the Israeli news site Ynet. "They stuck one last knife in our back."
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.