Palestinian security prisoners were released from an Israeli prison and begun making their way to the West Bank, despite massive protests on the part of bereaved families in Israel and a High Court appeal.
The 26 Palestinian prisoners are being released as part of a US brokered peace process and are the third of four such release rounds. Their release was made possible only after a petition by bereaved families was rejected by the High Court.
The three prisoners who were released to Gaza were moved from Ofer Prison to the Erez Crossing. They were met by their families and no official ceremony was held. The five prisoners being released to east Jerusalem were transferred to an unspecified location.
Israelis opposed to the move set out from the Jerusalem residence of Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu on Monday evening, and marched to the Old City home of one of the prisoners set to go free.
The High Court shot down the petition filed by the Almagor organization which represented the bereaved families earlier Monday night, thus giving the release a green light.
In their petition, the group claimed that Netanyahu failed to make good on his promise to hold a special discussion regarding the release of Palestinian terrorists with Israeli citizenship and five such prisoners will be released Monday night.
The group requested that the court issue an interim order to hold the release until such a discussion is conducted. Justice Elyakim Rubinstein wrote the dissent opinion on the High Court’s ruling, objecting to the release of five Israeli-Arabs to east Jerusalem.
Netanyahu faced a public uproar Monday over the release Palestinian prisoners convicted in deadly attacks. With Netanyahu expected to accompany the releases with plans to build hundreds of new homes in the West Bank, 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 hard-line allies criticized Netanyahu for linking the Jewish settlement cause with the release of prisoners convicted in connection with killings, mostly of Israelis.
“Leadership is judged by the ability to implement decisions, difficult as they may be,” Netanyahu told members of the Likud . “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 release a total of 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners in order to restart peace talks with the Palestinians.
In exchange, the Palestinians dropped their longstanding demand for Israel to halt construction of homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. 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. All 26 of the men have been convicted in 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.
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 neighborhoods 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 in the murder of an alleged collaborator with Israel.
His mother Haseba, 75, said she has “spent my life” visiting her son, but hasn’t been able to make the trip for the past two years because she can no longer walk. “I’ve visited him in 14 jails. I would leave my kids screaming and go for a visit,” she said.
In the east Jerusalem neighborhood 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 Palestinian President Mahmoud 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.”
Read more at Yediot Achronot.