JERUSALEM - The Israeli government on Monday night began releasing 26 more 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 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 last 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 murdered 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.
Netanyahu, addressing members of his Likud Party on Monday, said, "Leadership is judged by the ability to implement decisions, difficult as they may be," the Associated Press reported. 'We were not elected to make easy decisions."
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 against 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," Issa Karak, Palestinian minister of prisoner affairs, said in an interview. "We are very happy for the release of our prisoners . . . and see this as a step towards freedom for all our prisoners."
Among those released Monday night and Tuesday morning, are three men convicted of slitting the throat of Sara Sharon, an Israeli prostitute and mother of seven, and leaving a note warning they would continue to kill Jews until all Palestinian refugees came home.
Also set free are Muammar Ata Mahmoud Mahmoud and Salah Khalil Ahmad Ibrahim, convicted of stabbing to death an Israel Prize-winning history professor, Menahem Stern, as he took a stroll on the Hebrew University campus in June 1989.
Qadura Farres, head of the Palestinian prisoners, said that Israel was not doing the Palestinians any favors and that all these prisoners should have been released as part of the Oslo Accords, an agreement to establish a measure of Palestinian self-rule and partial withdrawal of Israeli troops.
There are approximately 4,700 Palestinian security prisoners in Israeli jails, most of whom were 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 to be released, six hold Israeli identification cards and live in east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as the capital of their future state and which most Israelis insist will never be divided. "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."