RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) -- 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 kicked off 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.
Tuesday'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 batches 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 prisoners as they were freed, hoisting them on their shoulders, waving Palestinian flags and bopping to blaring music. In Gaza, where five of the prisoners were released, relatives held signs that read "we will never forget our heroes." The 21 prisoners released to the West Bank were to be greeted at a welcoming ceremony later by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
"Today is a day of joy for the family and for all of Palestine," said Tayser Shubair, waiting earlier for his brother's release in Gaza. His 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."
Thousands of Palestinians have been held in Israeli prisons since Israel's capture of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war, many jailed on charges ranging from throwing rocks to killing civilians in bombings, shootings and other attacks.
The fate of the 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.
Among those going free Tuesday are people jailed in connection to the killings of Israelis including a reservist and a Nazi death camp survivor, according to the list provided by Israel's prison service. Many of the killings occurred before the beginning of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in 1993.
Israel's Supreme Court earlier rejected an appeal that sought to cancel the prisoner 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."
Israel has a long history of lopsided prisoner exchanges with its Arab adversaries. But Tuesday's release appeared especially charged because Israel is receiving little in return except for the opportunity to conduct negotiations that few people believe will be successful.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has already said he will announce new settlement plans, apparently to make up for the release.