JERUSALEM — Hours before a second round of peace talks was set to resume, Israel today released the first 26 of 104 Palestinian prisoners it agreed to set free to draw Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
The prisoners were transferred to the West Bank and Gaza Strip shortly after 1 a.m., a move widely seen as timed to minimize media coverage and damp Palestinian homecoming ceremonies.
Despite the timing, thousands of Palestinians greeted the men like returning war heroes, with fireworks and boisterous celebrations in Ramallah, where 11 prisoners returned, and in Gaza City, where the remaining 15 were released.
Israel had agreed to release the first 26 men sometime before direct negotiations were scheduled to resume in Jerusalem later today. Although U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry succeeded in bringing the two sides back together for the first time since 2010, expectations for progress remained low.
Any goodwill that might have been generated among Palestinians by Israel's prisoner release was largely overshadowed by a flurry of announcements of new settlement construction. The issue led Palestinians to quit the last direct talks in 2010.
Over the past week, Israel approved or advanced nearly 3,200 units of Jewish housing on land it seized during the 1967 Mideast War, in the Jerusalem area and in West Bank settlements.
A majority of the Palestinians who were released had been in jail 20 years or more. Eight had been slated for release within the next three years.
To Palestinians, the men are seen as freedom fighters and national heroes. To most Israelis, the prisoners are terrorists or criminals who killed civilians. Most were serving life sentences.