JERUSALEM - Hours before direct peace talks are slated to resume in Jerusalem, Israel will release 26 long-time Palestinian prisoners all convicted of involvement in the killings of Israelis.
Billing the move as a confidence-building measure as peace talks get off the ground again, Israel agreed to release 104 Palestinian inmates in four stages over the next nine months. Late Tuesday night, 14 inmates will be released at the Erez border crossing with the Gaza Strip and 12 will be dropped off at the Betuna border crossing near Ramallah.
Palestinians cheered the move, and welcome tents popped up across the West Bank and in Gaza outside the homes of the returning inmates, reported The Associated Press.
The prisoners getting out tonight were all convicted of attacks before 1993. The longest serving prisoner, Fayez Mutawi al-Khur, was sentenced to life in prison back in 1985.
Born in Gaza, al-Khur was convicted of murder and attempted murder of two Israelis in Gaza City in November 1985. During his prison sentence, he was also convicted of planning to kill the Israeli prime minister at the time, Yitzhak Shamir.
Perhaps the best-known prisoner expected to be released tonight is Atiyeh Salem Abu Musa. Also from Gaza, Abu Musa was arrested in 1994 for murdering a Holocaust survivor, Issac Rotenburg, with an axe during the Jewish holiday of Passover.
Speaking to Israel's YnetNews.com, Rotenberg's son, Pinchas Rotenberg, said Abu Musa's release is "not acceptable under any circumstances," saying it "is a very exaggerated price" for peace.
The prisoner release is deeply unpopular with most Israelis who, like Pinchas Rotenberg, see the move as an unnecessary political ploy.
On Tuesday, Israel's High Court of Justice rejected an appeal by an Israeli victims' rights group, Almagor, to halt the release. The group described the release of prisoners "with blood on their hands" as unprecedented, though thousands of Palestinian prisoners have been released over the last two decades.
Bella Beker, the widow of a citrus grower who was murdered in 1994 by Barbakh Faiz Rajab Madhat, told YnetNews.com, "it feels terrible to release the killer."
"I would like to know if to the prime minister such a disaster happened, and they released the killer, how he would feel?" Beker asked, "And for what? For peace?"
Despite the show of goodwill, emotions are running high on both sides, and Palestinians enter this week's peace talks with a renewed sense of distrust. On Sunday, Israel's housing ministry announced the approval of 1,200 new housing units in Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
But U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged Palestinians to stick with the process, expressing confidence that peace talks would move ahead.
Speaking in Colombia this week, Kerry said the announcement "underscores … the importance of getting to the table and getting to the table quickly, and resolving the questions with respect to settlements, which are best resolved by solving the problems of security and borders."