Palestinian prisoner release

Palestinian women from the West Bank wait near the Israeli military prison of Ofer for inmates to be released. (Ahmad Gharabli / AFP/Getty Images / August 13, 2013)

JERUSALEM – Hours before a second round of peace talks was set to resume, Israel on Wednesday released the first 26 of 104 Palestinian prisoners it agreed to set free to bring Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

The prisoners were transferred shortly after 1 a.m., a move widely seen as timed to minimize media coverage and dampen Palestinian homecoming ceremonies.

Despite the timing, hundreds of Palestinians were poised to greet the men like returning war heroes, with boisterous celebrations planned in Ramallah, where 11 prisoners were being returned, and Gaza City, where the remaining 15 were headed.

Israel had agreed to release the first 26 men sometime before direct negotiations were scheduled to resume in Jerusalem later Wednesday. Though U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry has succeeded in bringing the two sides back together for the first time since 2010, expectations for progress are low.

Any goodwill that might have been created among Palestinians by Israel’s prisoner release was largely overshadowed by a flurry of announcements of new settlement construction. That issue led Palestinians to quit the last direct talks in 2010.

Over the last week, Israel approved or advanced nearly 3,200 units of Jewish housing on land it seized during the 1967 Middle East War, in the Jerusalem area and in isolated settlements of the West Bank.

As prisoners arrived in Ramallah early Wednesday, supporters and family members waved Palestinian flags and held up pictures of loved ones they hadn't seen in years.  A majority of the men had been in jail 20 years or more. Eight were slated for release within the next three years.

To Palestinians, the men are seen as freedom fighters and national heroes who were imprisoned for striking against the Israeli occupation of their homeland.

To most Israelis, the prisoners are terrorists or criminals who killed civilians, including women, children and, in one case, an aging Holocaust survivor. Most were serving life sentences for murdering Israelis.

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