JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's prime minister faced a political uproar from across the political spectrum on Monday over the planned release of 26 Palestinian prisoners, all according to authorities convicted on murder charges connected to deadly attacks on Israelis.
Tuesday's release is part of a U.S.-brokered agreement that restarted peace talks with the Palestinians over the summer. It is the second of four planned releases of the longest-serving Palestinian prisoners held by Israel in the coming months.
The overnight announcement of the prisoner names triggered a storm of criticism. Among those going free are people jailed in connection to the killings of Israelis including a reservist and a Nazi death camp survivor, according to the list provided by Israel's prison service. Many of the killings occurred before the beginning of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in 1993.
Over a thousand people protested Monday night outside Ofer jail where the prisoners are held. Families held up pictures of slain loved ones and called on the government not to release the prisoners held responsible for their deaths.
Israel has a long history of lopsided prisoner exchanges with its Arab adversaries. But this week'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.
"The release of terrorists is immoral, weakens Israel, endangers Israeli citizens," Naftali Bennett, leader of the hardline Jewish Home Party, wrote on his Facebook page. "Israel has humiliated itself for the last 20 years with terrorist release deals, and it is time to put an end to it."
Pini Rosenberg, whose father, a survivor of the Sobibor Nazi death camp, was killed in a 1994 ax attack, said government ministers did not consider the emotional toll on bereaved families. A man convicted in the killing was among those set to be released Tuesday.
"They look at these murderers as a bargaining chip that they will one day spend. If they started involving emotions, they wouldn't be able to do it," he told Army Radio.
Critics, including dovish members of his coalition, said Netanyahu could have avoided the release if he had accepted Palestinian calls to stop construction of West Bank settlements or base negotiations over the borders of a future Palestinian state on Israel's pre-1967 lines. The Palestinians claim the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, captured by Israel in 1967, for their future state.
"Netanyahu preferred in clear conscience, and out of fear from his political allies, releasing prisoners instead of freezing isolated settlements," said opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich. "It is also hard to digest and unconscionable, especially hurtful to the families of the murdered."
Netanyahu has already said he will announce new settlement plans, apparently to make up for the release. Channel 10 TV reported that plans for some 1,200 housing units in settlements will likely be announced Thursday.
Addressing members of his Likud Party on Monday, he called the release one of the toughest decisions he has had to make.
"This is due to the injustice that these evil doers are being freed without completing their sentence. My heart is with the bereaved families and the heart hurts," he said.
The news was greeted with joy in the Palestinian territories, where prisoners are seen as heroes waging a national liberation struggle against Israeli occupation. In Gaza and the West Bank, families sang, displayed pictures of their loved ones and played music. Israel plans on freeing the men late at night to avoid public celebrations.
"Thank God that I'm still alive," said Amouneh Abed Rabo, a woman in a wheelchair whose son Issa was arrested in 1984 for allegedly killing two Israelis. "My son will be released and I will be able to hug him," she added.
AP Correspondent Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed to this report.