(Israel) freed 26 Palestinian prisoners on Wednesday, the second of four groups to be released as part of a deal that set in motion the current Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Jubilant celebrations erupted in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where the prisoners are seen as heroes who fought for independence and were received by their families and Palestinian leaders.
The release was part of an agreement brokered by the US secretary of state, John Kerry, bringing Israel and the Palestinians back to the table for peace talks that had been paralysed since 2008. In all 104 people are to be released in four rounds over the coming months.
In the West Bank and Gaza the mood was boisterous as hundreds of relatives and well-wishers welcomed the prisoners home after many had spent more than 20 years behind bars.
Throngs of people rushed toward the five prisoners released to Gaza, hoisting them on their shoulders, waving Palestinian flags and dancing to blaring music. Relatives held signs that read: "We will never forget our heroes." More than 2,000 people welcomed the 21 prisoners released to the West Bank, who were greeted at a ceremony by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, in Ramallah.
Hazem Shubair, who was jailed in 1994 for the death of an Israeli, according to the Israeli Prison Service, was overwhelmed upon his release to Gaza. "I am speechless," he said. "Thanks to God. God is greater than the aggressors." Earlier his brother Tayser called Hazem a "freedom fighter".
Thousands of Palestinians have been held in Israeli prisons since Israel's capture of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem in the 1967 war. Many were jailed on charges ranging from throwing rocks to killing civilians in bombings, shootings and other attacks. The Palestinians want those territories for their future state.
Standing alongside the newly freed prisoners, Abbas said a final peace deal with Israel was contingent on the release of prisoners held in its jails. "There will be no final agreement without the release of all the prisoners," he said.
Israel's supreme court earlier rejected an appeal that sought to cancel the prisoner release. An organisation of bereaved families behind the appeal has said it fears the prisoners will return to violence once freed.
Highlighting opposition to the move, about 50 Israelis protested outside the West Bank prison where the inmates were held ahead of the release. They raised signs reading "Death to murderers" and burned keffiyehs, traditional Palestinian headscarves. More than a thousand people had demonstrated against the release on Monday.
AP contributed to the report.