RAMALLAH, West Bank —
Israel freed 26 Palestinian prisoners early Wednesday, the second of four batches to be released as part of a deal that set in motion the current Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
The decision to release the 26 has triggered anguish and anger in Israel, where many view the men as terrorists who have committed grisly crimes against Israelis. But jubilant celebrations erupted in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where the prisoners are seen as heroes who fought for independence, and were received by their families and Palestinian leaders.
Wednesday’s release was part of an agreement brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that brought Israel and the Palestinians back to the table for peace talks that had been paralyzed since 2008. In all, 104 convicts are to be released in four rounds over the coming months.
In the West Bank and Gaza, the mood was boisterous as hundreds of relatives and well-wishers welcomed the prisoners home, after many had spent more than 20 years behind bars.
Throngs of people rushed toward the five prisoners released to Gaza, hoisting them on their shoulders, waving Palestinian flags and bopping to blaring music. Relatives held signs that read “we will never forget our heroes.”
More than 2,000 people welcomed the 21 prisoners released to the West Bank, who were greeted at a ceremony by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.
Hazem Shubair, who was jailed in 1994 for the death of an Israeli, according to the Israeli Prison Service, was overwhelmed upon his release to Gaza. “I am speechless,” he said. “Thanks to God. God is greater than the aggressors,” meaning Israel. Earlier, his brother Tayser called Hazem a “freedom fighter.”