JERUSALEM — The Israeli government Monday night released another 26 Palestinian prisoners serving long sentences for killing Israeli citizens, part of a deal struck between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry to bring Palestinian leaders back to peace negotiations.
It is the third of four scheduled releases for a total of 104 Palestinian prisoners, all serving 19 years or more in Israeli jails for crimes committed before the 1993 signing of the Oslo accords.
For Israelis, each release appears more difficult than the last. A few hundred people have been staging an emotional protest in front of Netanyahu’s official residence for the past three days, waving signs depicting bloody hands, as others gathered Monday night outside a prisoner’s home in East Jerusalem.
Among the demonstrators at Netanyahu’s house was Elihai Ben Ishai, whose sister, her husband and their three children were killed in their sleep in the Jewish settlement of Itamar in the West Bank in 2011.
“The U.S. government would not release convicted murderers, so why is it pressuring Israel to release terrorists and murderers?” Ben Ishai said.
In Ramallah, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was ready, for the third time, to welcome home prisoners who are seen as heroes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip because their attacks on Jewish Israelis were motivated by resistance to the Israeli occupation.
“They will participate in a special torch-lighting to celebrate the beginning of the new year,” Palestinian Minister of Prisoner Affairs Issa Karak said in an interview. “We are very happy for the release of our prisoners, who have spent 20 years in jail, and see this as a step towards freedom for all our prisoners.”
Among those released Monday night were three men convicted of slitting the throat of Sara Sharon , an Israeli prostitute and mother of seven, and leaving a note warning that they would continue to kill Jews until all Palestinian refugees came home.
Also set free were Muammar Ata Mahmoud Mahmoud and Salah Khalil Ahmad Ibrahim, convicted of stabbing to death an Israel Prize-winning history professor, Menahem Stern, as he strolled the Hebrew University campus in June 1989.
Qadura Fares, president of the Palestinian Prisoners’ Society, said that Israel was not doing the Palestinians any favors and that all these prisoners should have been freed as part of the Oslo accords, an agreement to establish a measure of Palestinian self-rule and partial Israeli troop withdrawal.
Fares said he was happy about Monday’s release, saying it gives a “ray of hope for the release of all other prisoners.”
There are about 4,700 Palestinian security prisoners in Israeli jails, most convicted in Israeli military courts of participating in or planning terror attacks.
Meir Indor, head of the Israeli victims association Almagor, said that among the 26 Palestinians released Monday, six hold Israeli identification cards and live in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as the capital of a future state and which most Israelis insist will never be divided from the rest of Jerusalem.
“Where is the justice in this?” Indor said. “At the graves of each of these victims, the government promised on the one hand that Israel would provide justice, but then with the other hand they destroy that justice by releasing convicted terrorists and murderers.”
Sufian Taha contributed to this report.