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Israel Starts 'Peace Move' Prisoner Release
Israel has released 26 Palestinian prisoners in a move that is a precondition for restarting Middle East peace talks.
The Israeli prison service said buses carrying the inmates left a jail in central Israel late on Tuesday.
Celebrations are planned in the West Bank and Gaza where they are viewed as heroes.
But their release is painful for some Israelis who view them as terrorists.
Israel released them late at night to prevent a spectacle. Some were taken to the West Bank. Others went to Gaza.
Several of the prisoners were said to have been members of Palestinian political groups Fatah and Hamas. Others were violent criminals who carried out offences including murder and robbery more than 20 years ago.
Among the most controversial of the prisoners to be released is 40-year-old Atiyeh Salem Abu Musa, who was arrested in 1994 for the murder of Holocaust survivor Issac Rotenberg.
A member of Fatah, Abu Musa attacked Rotenberg with an axe during Passover.
Another, Khaled Mohamed Asakreh, was convicted in 1991 of the murder of French tourist Annie Ley. Ms Ley was dining at a restaurant where Asakreh was employed when he stabbed her to death.
Israelis and Palestinians are due to launch talks in Jerusalem on Wednesday, following a preparatory talks which took place two weeks ago in Washington.
The prisoner release was part of an agreement to restart the direct talks, which have been suspended for more than three years.
The Palestinians had refused to resume negotiations with Israel unless it halted settlement construction. Israel has refused.
Hours after the release, Israeli housing minister Uri Ariel stated Israel will build "thousands" of new homes in settlements in the West Bank.
"We will build thousands of homes in the coming year in Judaea and Samaria," he told public radio, using the biblical term for the West Bank.
"No-one dictates where we can build," he added.
His remarks added to already soaring tensions over settlements following Israeli decisions this week to press ahead with 2,129 settler homes, most of them in annexed east Jerusalem.
Commentators said the timing of this week's announcements was aimed at appeasing hardliners in Netanyahu's rightwing coalition but was also something of a quid-pro quo for the Palestinian prisoner release.
Meanwhile, the Israeli army says it has struck rocket-launching devices in Gaza days after it claimed rockets were fired from the area.
After six trips to the region, US Secretary of State John Kerry managed to persuade Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to drop the settlement issue as a condition for negotiations to start.
In exchange, Israel will release a total of 104 Palestinian prisoners serving long sentences. All of those released had been jailed before 1993.
Israel's Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected an appeal by families who lost loved ones in Palestinian attacks to block the release.
Just before the release, Israel moved forward with a plan to build nearly 900 new homes in east Jerusalem - a decision that angered Palestinians.
It is not known yet whether the Israeli announcement will affect Wednesday's talks.
However, Mr Kerry insisted on Wednesday that the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas was committed to the talks despite the issues of Israeli settlement building.
The last round of talks collapsed in late 2008, and negotiations have remained stalled mainly over the issue of Israeli settlement construction on territories claimed by the Palestinians for their future state.
The Palestinians say the settlements, now home to more than 500,000 Israelis, are making it increasingly difficult to carve out their own state and that continued Israeli construction is a sign of bad faith.
The latest construction is to take place in Gilo, an area in east Jerusalem that Israel considers to be a neighbourhood of its capital.
Israel's annexation of east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as their capital, is not internationally recognised.