JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's Supreme Court cleared the way for the release of 26 Palestinian prisoners on Tuesday, the second of four batches set to be freed as part of a deal that put 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 are expected in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where the prisoners are seen as heroes who fought for independence, and are set to be received by their families and Palestinian leaders. The release is expected to take place overnight.
The court appeal claimed that in light of a recent spate of deadly attacks on Israelis in the West Bank, the government should review the decision it made earlier this year to release the convicts. The Supreme Court rejected that claim and ruled that there was no legal basis to cancel the release.
An organization of bereaved families behind the appeal has said it fears the prisoners, all convicted in connection to the deaths of Israelis, will return to violence once freed.
Highlighting the opposition to the move, some 50 Israelis protested outside the West Bank prison where the inmates were held ahead of the release. They held signs reading "death to murderers" and burned keffiyehs, traditional Palestinian headscarves. Over a thousand people demonstrated against the release on Monday.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon told Israeli TV he felt for the bereaved families but that the decision to free the prisoners came from a "responsibility to guide the state of Israel according to a long-term strategy."
In Gaza, some 300 people amassed ahead of the release to welcome the prisoners at the Erez Crossing with Israel, where music blared and dozens of people brandished flags and signs reading "we will never forget our heroes." Five prisoners will be released to Gaza while 21 will be sent to the West Bank, where Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to greet them at a welcoming ceremony.
"Today is a day of joy for the family and for all of Palestine," said Tayser Shubair, whose brother Hazem was jailed in 1994 for the death of an Israeli, according to the Israeli Prison Service. "My brother is a freedom fighter and we are proud of him and we thank the president for his effort to get him out."
The fate of prisoners is a deeply emotional issue in Palestinian society. After decades of fighting Israel, many families have had a member imprisoned and the release of prisoners has been a longstanding demand.
Tuesday's release is 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. It is the second of four stages expected to free 104 convicts in the coming months.
Associated Press writer Ibrahim Barzak contributed to this report from Erez Crossing, Gaza Strip.