Israel on Monday released a list of 26 Palestinian prisoners to be freed as part of a deal that saw peace talks get underway last month, dpa reported.
Twenty of the prisoners were convicted of murder and the rest of aiding and abetting murder. They are to be released before the next round of negotiations are to resume Wednesday in Jerusalem.
The move, which fulfils a condition for the next stage of talks, brought praise from the United States. In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf called it a "tough decision" and a "positive step forward."
Meanwhile, Israel's announcement on Sunday that the building of more than 1,000 new homes in Jewish settlements had been approved was likely to make negotiations more difficult - and brought muted criticism from the State Department.
"We do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity," Harf said. "We have serious concerns with this announcement, particularly given the timing."
She said the US has been raising the issue with the Israeli government.
The families of the prisoners' victims said they would appeal to the courts to stop their release.
"It can't be that our blood was worth so little," Gila Molcho, whose brother, Ian Feinberg, was slain 20 years ago, told Israel's Channel 2 television. "These are murderers who will murder again."
One of the prisoners on Monday's list was convicted of involvement in Feinberg's slaying.
Health Minister Yael German said the prisoner release was a painful but necessary gesture.
She said on Israel Radio that as a mother whose son was killed in the army, she understood the pain that families of the dead were feeling, but that Israel must proceed with the peace process like it was caring for "a baby who with the wrong treatment could die at any moment."
The peace talks were stalled for nearly three years, before Israel and the Palestinians returned to the negotiating table two weeks ago in Washington after US mediation. They agreed to work toward an agreement within nine months for a two-state solution to end their decades-long conflict.
The Palestinian Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, made the release of 104 long-term prisoners a condition for resuming the talks.
Monday's list of the initial prisoners to be released consisted of 14 who are to go home to the Gaza Strip and 12 to the West Bank.
The remaining 78 prisoners are to be released in three stages parallel to the negotiations.
Israel said the first prisoners could be freed at the earliest 48 hours after the release of the names, which would be early Wednesday. The Palestinians had announced the releases would happen Tuesday.
Palestinian negotiator Mohammed Shtayyeh called the housing announcement "clear proof" that the Israeli government was "not serious about the talks."
The Palestinians have demanded a halt to all construction in Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle concluded a two-day visit in the region to support the peace process, meeting Monday with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the final day of his two-day visit.
"I believe the peace talks now stand on a crucial precipice," Westerwelle said.
US peace mediator Martin Indyk and his team were on the ground in the region to facilitate discussions on "all of these thorny issues" that are on the table, Harf said.
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