QALANDIA REFUGEE CAMP, WEST BANK—
Ramadan Yakoub is tasting freedom for the first time in 21 years. Until a few hours ago, he was in prison, convicted of killing an Israeli woman.
His release brings to 78 the number of long-term Palestinian prisoners freed as part of confidence-building measures to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks after a three-year freeze.
In the latest round of releases, Israel has freed 26 more Palestinian prisoners who were jailed, mostly for attacks on Israelis that took place more than 20 years ago.
“When I heard the news I felt like a newborn child," he said. "I wish this feeling upon all the prisoners. It was a wonderful moment for me.”
Crowds cheered and waved flags as they gave Yakoub and his fellow freed prisoners a hero's welcome in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem on Tuesday.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and other officials greeted a group of them in Ramallah, where Abbas vowed to press for more prisoners to be allowed to go home.
"We will not sign a final peace deal with Israel until all the prisoners are released," he said. "This day is a happy day for all of us, for our people, for our families, and for our hero prisoners who were freed today to live free."
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Prisoners released by Israel are welcomed by relatives and friends in Ramallah, West Bank, Dec. 31, 2013.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (C) speaks as he welcomes Palestinian prisoners released by Israel, in Ramallah, West Bank, Dec. 31, 2013.
Palestinians hold posters depicting Palestinian prisoner Naim Shawamreh as they wait for the released prisoners to arrive in Ramallah, West Bank, Dec. 30, 2013.
A prisoner (R) released from an Israeli prison is welcomed by relatives in Ramallah, West Bank, Dec. 31, 2013.
Prisoners released by Israel celebrate upon their arrival in Ramallah, West Bank, December 31, 2013.
A prisoner released from an Israeli prison (C, back to camera) is welcomed by relatives in Ramallah, West Bank, Dec. 31, 2013.
Relatives of Palestinian prisoner Rami Barbakh, who has been held by Israel since 1994, celebrate ahead of his expected release in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, Dec. 30, 2013.
But the release has angered many Israelis, including some member of Netanyahu's Cabinet, who view the former prisoners as terrorists. Families of some of their victims demonstrated after the announcement, with some protesting at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's residence and at the home of one released prisoner in East Jerusalem.
Netanyahu says the decision to free them was not easy.
"Leadership is being judged by its ability to execute tough decisions, decisions which are taken no matter how tough they are," he said. "The state of Israel has a strategic interest in negotiations which aim to reach an agreement which will end the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict."
The newly freed Yakoub says he, too, wants peace.
“My wishes are the wishes of every Palestinian, which is basically the withdrawal of the Israeli occupation from our land and the establishment of a Palestinian state.”
Explaining that he is through fighting, Yakoub says he studied political science while in prison, and that he wants to help the people of the impoverished Qalandia Refugee Camp via economic and social programs.
With a final group of 26 Palestinians set to be released in April, which will bring the total number to 104, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is due to travel to the Middle East this week, where he will propose a framework for final status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
A State Department spokeswoman gave no details of the framework Monday, other than saying it would address all core issues between the two sides.
After a three-year break, Israeli and Palestinian officials resumed peace talks in July, when Israel agreed to the prisoner release and the Palestinians dropped their demand that Israel stop settlement construction before final status talks are held.
Kerry, who has made a Middle East peace agreement a top foreign policy goal, leaves for Jerusalem Wednesday and will then proceed to Ramallah.
The secretary of state has made frequent trips to the region in the past year.