Standing alongside the newly freed prisoners, Abbas said a final peace deal with Israel was contingent on the release of prisoners held in its jails. “There will be no final agreement without the release of all the prisoners,” he told the raucous crowd.
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 freed Wednesday are people jailed in connection to the killings of Israelis including a reservist and a Nazi death camp survivor, according to a 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 raised 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 Wednesday’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 Benjamin Netanyahu has already said he will announce new settlement plans, apparently to make up for the release.