Talks resume as Israel frees Palestinians
Updated: 2013-08-14 09:59
JERUSALEM/RAMALLAH, West Bank - Israel freed 26 Palestinian prisoners on Wednesday to keep US-sponsored peacemaking on course for a second round of talks, but diplomacy remained dogged by Israeli plans for more Jewish homes on land the Palestinians claim for a future state.
Negotiators are due to convene in the afternoon in Jerusalem, the city at the heart of the decades-old conflict, after a three-year stand-off ended with the first round of talks in Washington last month.
Follow-up meetings are expected every few weeks in venues including Jericho in the occupied West Bank in pursuit of US Secretary of State John Kerry's goal of clinching an accord in nine months.
Israel says it supports his vision but in the past few days has announced plans to increase its settlement of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which, along with the Gaza Strip, the Palestinians want as part of their state in any deal.
The 26 men released were the first batch of 104 Palestinians serving long jail terms, many for deadly attacks on Israelis. Their freedom may improve Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's domestic standing despite his having dropped demands to condition peace talks on a halt to settlement building.
Hundreds of their relatives gathered in the presidential compound in the West Bank capital of Ramallah in the early hours of Wednesday, waving Palestinian flags and greeting their arrival with tears and chants.
Abbas greeted each of the eleven prisoners released to the West Bank with kisses on both cheeks. He locked hands with some of the prisoners making victory signs on a high stage and basked in waves of flash photography.
"We congratulate ourselves and our families for our brothers who left the darkness of the prisons for the light of the sun of freedom. We say to them and to you that the remainder are on their way, these are just the first," Abbas told the crowd.
In Gaza, when the other fifteen prisoners crossed an Israeli checkpoint into Palestinian territory, their family members fired guns and set off fireworks.