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Diplomacy

Thousands greet Palestinian prisoners after Israel agrees their release

Cheering crowds have met 26 Palestinian prisoners released by Israel as a goodwill gesture ahead of a round of peace negotiations. Palestinians, though, remain outraged by fresh Israeli plans to build settlement homes.

The first batch of prisoners due to be released by Israel arrived in Palestinian territories early Wednesday to an ecstatic welcome from thousands of waiting supporters.

A group of 15 crossed into the Gaza Strip at about 1:40 a.m. local time (2240 GMT) following their late-night release from the Ayalon prison near Tel Aviv. Fireworks lit the sky and gunshots rang out as relatives and rival Hamas and Fatah supporters mobbed the prisoners as they got off the bus near the border.

Over in the West Bank capital of Ramallah another 11 prisoners were also greeted by cheering crowds, dancing and singing, hours after their release from the Ofer military prison. They were personally greeted by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the presidential compound with a kiss on both cheeks.

"This is the first group," Abbas told the crowd at an official welcoming ceremony at his Muqataa headquarters.

"We shall continue until we free all the prisoners from Israeli jails," he said.

Anger in Israel

Altogether 104 prisoners are set to be released by Israel in four rounds under a deal brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry to get the Palestinians to return to peace negotiations after they had been stalled for the past three years.

Most of the prisoners being released had been convicted of killings, with victims including Israeli civilians, or attempted murder or kidnapping. Palestinians generally view the prisoners as heroes who made personal sacrifices in the struggle for independence.

In Israel, however, their release was met with anger. Relatives of their alleged victims staged protests throughout the day, while some briefly attempted to prevent their buses from leaving.

Earlier in the day Israel's supreme court rejected an appeal against their release launched by the families of people killed by some of the prisoners.

More settlement home construction

The Palestinians agreed to talks despite the fact that Israel refused to halt all settlement construction, something they had long demanded as a pre-condition for resuming negotiations.

Over the past several days though, the Israelis have approved the construction of hundreds of new homes in settlements on land captured during the 1967 war, which the Palestinians want to make part of a future state.

On Tuesday, Israel approved the construction of around 900 housing units in a settlement in east Jerusalem.

This followed Israel's announcement on Sunday, that it had approved of plans for 1,200 settlement homes in both east Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Israeli plans to build more settlement homes have enraged the Palestinians, particularly as they've come in the lead-up to the first peace talks in years.

"If the Israeli government believes that every week they're going to cross a red line by settlement activity ... what they're advertising is the unsustainability of the negotiations," the head of the Palestinian negotiating team, Saeb Erekat, said following Sunday's announcement.

Peace talks still a go

US Secretary of State Kerry took great pains on Tuesday to stress that the peace talks, to begin at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on Wednesday, were still on track, despite the tensions over settlements.

"I'll be talking to President Abbas today ... and he is committed to continuing to come to the negotiation because he believes that negotiation is what will resolve this issue," Kerry told a press conference in the Brazilian capital, Brasilia.

"But, that said, [Israeli] Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was completely up front with me and with President Abbas that he would be announcing some additional building in places that will not affect the peace map, that will not have any impact on the capacity to have a peace agreement," Kerry said.

He added, though, that "the policy of the United States with respect to all settlements, is that they are illegitimate."

ccp, pfd/av (Reuters, dpa, AP, AFP)