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Twenty-six prisoners stepped off of Israeli buses tonight and were greeted as heroes by Palestinians. The releases are a goodwill gesture by Israel, ahead of a new round of peace talks due to begin tomorrow. The prisoners are among 104 Palestinians slated to be freed in the next few months, despite strong and emotional objections from many Israelis. The prisoners were welcomed home with fireworks and widespread celebrations in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
More now from reporter Sheera Frenkel.
NI'HIM MANSOUR: (Singing in foreign language)
SHEERA FRENKEL, BYLINE: In a West Bank village, Ni'him Mansour raises her hands to the sky and sings a song thanking God for the imminent return of her son. He's among the prisoners being released. All have been in jail since the early 1990s.
MANSOUR: (Foreign language spoken)
FRENKEL: Ni'him says her son has spent half his life behind bars. He was convicted of accessory to murder in the death of an Israeli soldier. Now she's preparing to celebrate his return and she hopes to soon celebrate his wedding. She points to the hundreds of plastic chairs her family has laid out in their backyard, and the plates of pastries and breads that will serve to their guests tonight.
There will be similar celebrations across the Palestinian territories. Eleven of the prisoners being freed are from the West Bank and 15 are from the Gaza Strip. Most people here say they don't mind that the releases aren't likely to happen until almost dawn or that the Israeli government chose the men without consulting Palestinian officials. Any prisoner who comes home, they say, is a cause for celebration.
In Gaza, the Abdel Aal family awaits the return of their son, Yusef, who was 16 when he was arrested at his home in the Al Bureli refugee camp. He, too, was convicted of accessory to murder for providing information to the killers of Ian Feinberg, a 30-year-old Israeli lawyer who volunteered his time in the Gaza Strip on a project coordinated by the European Union.
Omar Abdel Aal, says his brother's involvement in Feinberg's death was a terrible accident.
OMAR ABDEL AAL: (Through Translator) The person who was killed was a volunteer who was helping Palestinians. He wasn't carrying a weapon. He wasn't a soldier.
FRENKEL: Omar says that his brother paid the price by serving two decades of his life in prison. Now, they just want Yusef to come home, start a family, and get a job.
AAL: (Through Translator) I wanted him to live normally like others, and I am sure he's changed his mind about his political activity.
FRENKEL: Gali Molcho, the sister of Ian Feinberg, isn't so sure. She points to statistics that show that most released Palestinian prisoners return to militant groups and are likely to be re-arrested. She asks why Yusef should be shown mercy when her brother was taken cruelly from his family.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING PROTESTERS)
FRENKEL: Earlier this week, Molcho took part in small protest in front of Israel's Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv.
(SOUNDBITE OF WEEPING)
FRENKEL: Tears streamed freely down her cheek as she described her brother's goodwill towards people and his hope that volunteering in the Gaza Strip would help bring peace.
GALI MOLCHO: He was such a righteous person and he so much believed in people. And he was betrayed once. I can't be quiet and betray him again.
FRENKEL: She says she can't understand why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would release prisoners as a goodwill gesture toward the peace process that nobody believes in. The prisoner release comes on the eve of a new round of Israeli and Palestinian negotiations in Jerusalem.
MOLCHO: Nobody thinks it's the right step. But people don't even look me in the eye, they just look down and say, oh, its a terrible thing. Today, we've been sold for a gesture.
FRENKEL: What's worse, she says, is that she feels sure that the gesture won't bring peace.
For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.