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Israel, Palestinians Begin Peace Talks

Released Palestinian prisoner, Nehad Jondiya (C) sits among his sisters and relatives during the first morning breakfast after 24 years spent at Israeli jail, at his family house in Gaza City, Aug. 14, 2013.
A new round of peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators began Wednesday evening in Jerusalem, their first substantive attempt in five years at resolving major issues between them.

The two sides held preliminary talks last month in Washington, and have committed to spending nine months discussing the fate of Palestinian refugees, Israeli settlements and the borders of a future Palestinian state.

There was little optimism about the outcome of this first official session, which is expected to focus on setting the agenda for future negotiations.

Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen at the United States Institute for Peace said that merely sitting down for talks will not be enough.

"What's going to need to happen is that the parties come away from the talks today and the next couple of days feeling there's a reason to come back to the table. We might not know what the reasons are for each of those parties, but there is going to have to be a sense of trust of the part of the leaders that the other is at the table in good faith with a reasonable expectation or certainly hope that this process will end in an agreement," she said.

The negotiations are being led by Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, with help from former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk.

The talks started hours after Israel's military said it carried out airstrikes targeting "concealed rocket launchers" in the Gaza Strip. A spokesman blamed the militant group Hamas for "terrorist activity" that comes from the area.

Also before dawn Wednesday, 26 Palestinian prisoners returned to the West Bank and Gaza after being freed from long-time detention in Israel. Jubilant relatives celebrated their return and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hailed them as heroes.

The Israeli government has agreed to free a total of 104 Palestinian prisoners in stages, depending on the progress of the peace talks.