RAMALLAH, West Bank – Israel released 26 Palestinian prisoners early Wednesday, the second group out of 104 prisoners to be released as part of peace talks that were renewed during the summer.
The prisoners were serving sentences related to the killings of Israelis prior to the 1993 Olso peace accords.
The Israeli Cabinet approved the freeing of the 26 prisoners on Sunday, 48 hours before their release to give time for objections. Many Israelis consider the men terrorists, but the Israeli Supreme Court rejected attempts to stop their release.
Of the 26 prisoners, 21 were freed at an Israeli army-controlled checkpoint bordering Ramallah. The remaining five were sent to their homes in the Gaza Strip, where hundreds of their relatives and friends were waiting for them on the Palestinian side of Erez crossing.
In Ramallah, hundreds of family members, friends and spectators were waiting for the prisoners to cross the checkpoint. Buses carrying the prisoners appeared an hour after midnight.
The buses, followed by hundreds of cars, drove through Ramallah as people stood on the side of the road cheering the prisoners, considered by Palestinians as heroes and freedom fighters who went to jail for resisting the Israeli occupation of their land.
Minutes later, the buses arrived at the Muqata, the headquarters of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who was also waiting for them, a gesture that reflects the importance of the release of prisoners to Palestinians.
Families who had waited at the Muqata for hours, dancing and singing while anxiously following news of the release, cheered at the site of the prisoners at the podium with Abbas.
A cheerful Abbas welcomed the freed men, describing them as "our brothers the heroes coming from behind bars to the world of freedom." He promised to continue efforts to gain the release of more prisoners than the 104 included in the agreement with Israel.
"There will be no [peace] agreement [with Israel] as long as there is still one prisoner behind bars," Abbas said.
Rizq Salah, one of the released men, who had served 20 years in prison, said his most difficult moment was leaving behind other prisoners. But he said he was thrilled to be free and back with his family.
The first group of 26 prisoners was released in mid-August, the eve of the resumption of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations after three years of stalemate. The remaining 52 prisoners are expected to be released in two more groups, one at the end of December and the next at the end of March.
Special correspondent Rushdi abu Alouf contributed to this report from Gaza City.