JERUSALEM— Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are preparing to welcome home 26 prisoners due to be released by the Israeli government as part of recently revived peace talks. But the release is causing tensions in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's governing coalition.
Families of the 26 prisoners Monday celebrated the announced release and prepared to hold parties in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Most of the prisoners have spent more than 20 years in jail for involvement in attacks on Israeli civilians prior to the 1993 Oslo Agreement that created the Palestinian Authority. Most Israelis consider them to be terrorists but to Palestinians they are heroes of the resistance.
The Palestinian Authority's Minister for Prisoners, Issa Qaraka, called the release a positive step. He said releasing prisoners deepens the peace process and gives it more legitimacy. And it gives hope for the release of all the Palestinians in Israeli jails.
It is the second release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails since peace talks resumed three months ago between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Two more releases are scheduled as part of confidence-building measures before the talks are due to end in six months.
But families of the some of the Israeli victims protested and threatened legal action.
Netanyahu's spokesman, Mark Regev, acknowledged that the issue deeply divides Israelis.
"To release the murderers of innocent civilians is a painful and difficult decision which we are taking only because we want to give the peace talks with the Palestinians a chance," he admitted. "It's high time the Palestinian leadership was also willing to make difficult choices for peace."
Two parties in Netanyahu's governing coalition tried to block the release but failed to muster the votes to bring it before the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.
A senior member of one of these, Tourism Minister Uzi Landau of the Israel Our Home party, accuses Palestinian leaders of launching an international campaign against Israel.
"There's something strange in the fact that as we are negotiating with the Palestinians they go all over Europe asking people to boycott us, describing us as if we were monsters," Landau said. "At the same time they expect that we should continue with our commitments and release murderers who have been convicted."
The Israeli government also announced it would build more homes in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. This was widely seen as a move to appease critics of the prisoner release.
A spokesman for the Hamas movement that controls Gaza, Fawzi Barhoum, accused the Israeli government of using the release of prisoners to seize more Palestinian land. Hamas rejects any peace talks with Israel.
Barhoum said the release of some Palestinian prisoners can't be used to cover the building of 1,700 more houses in Israeli settlements.
Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed to resume peace talks in July following several months of shuttle diplomacy by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. The talks have been shrouded in secrecy but Kerry last week said all the outstanding issues are being discussed.