Israel released 26 Palestinian prisoners early Tuesday as part of five-month-old peace negotiations with a nine-month deadline, dpa reported.
At 2 am (00:00 GMT Tuesday), 18 inmates passed through a West Bank crossing into Palestinian-controlled Ramallah, from where they were driven to President Mahmoud Abbas' headquarters for an official welcome ceremony.
Three prisoners crossed into Gaza, and another five were released from a border police base in East Jerusalem, Israel Prison Service spokeswoman Sivan Weizman told dpa.
Hundreds of relatives waited in Abbas' Muqata headquarters, singing, dancing and waving Palestinian flags. During two previous releases in August and October, celebrations were held in the courtyard, but due to bad weather, Tuesday's ceremony was held indoors.
Israel's supreme court late Monday rejected a petition against the release by relatives of the militants' victims.
The release is the third since Israel and the Palestinians revived peace negotiations for the first time in years.
Twenty-six prisoners were freed in August, 26 in October and a fourth group is scheduled to go free in March. In total 104 Palestinians jailed since before the 1993 Oslo interim accords are to be freed as part of an Israeli gesture agreed to kick-start negotiations.
Hundreds of Israelis, including relatives of victims of Palestinian attacks, earlier protested in Jerusalem amid a large police presence, chanting "No to the release of murderers!" and "Death to terrorists."
They held up portraits of people who were slain by the militants being freed.
Eliezer Amsalem, whose brother was killed in 1992 in Jerusalem by one of the militants going free, said he was disappointed in the Israeli government, telling Channel 2 television: "He will be free, while we continue to suffer? I don't understand."
Hamza Taqtouq, a cousin of one of the inmates, waited in Ramallah for the arrival of the 18 prisoners returning to the West Bank.
"We came all the way from Nablus to celebrate the release of Ibrahim," Taqtouq said. "He and all the prisoners are our heroes. They gave their life for their country. We are proud of them."
His cousin was serving life for killing an Israeli soldier in 1989 by throwing a block of concrete onto him from a rooftop, as Israeli troops were chasing stone-throwers in Nablus' Old City.
Most of the 26 inmates were convicted of killing Israeli civilians.
The United States saw the prisoner release as a "positive step forward" in ongoing peace negotiations, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Monday.
US Secretary of State John Kerry was to hold meetings this week with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss ongoing permanent status negotiations.
The negotiations are in crisis due to arguments about security measures in the Jordan Valley, along the eastern West Bank, and a call by right-wing Israelis to annex the valley and extend Israeli law over its settlements.
Palestinians are furious about an Israeli plan to announce the construction of more settler homes, but Netanyahu insists that a settlement freeze was not a precondition for the current talks.
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