After departing on buses from Israeli jails overnight, the 26 prisoners received heroes’ welcomes on their return to the West Bank and Gaza with officials and jubilant relatives lining up to greet them.
At his headquarters in Ramallah, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas waited to meet the men in the middle of the night. Speaking before thousands, he pledged to continue pressing for the release of long-serving and ill prisoners.
“We will not sign a final peace deal with Israel before all the prisoners are released,” he said.
But in Israel, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced uproar from all sides over the move.
With Mr Netanyahu expected to accompany the releases with plans to build hundreds of new homes in Jewish settlements, the criticism came from some unlikely quarters.
Dovish supporters of peace talks said the expected construction would destroy any goodwill created by the prisoner release, while hardline allies criticised Mr Netanyahu for linking the Jewish settlement cause with the release of prisoners convicted over killings of mostly Israelis.
Mr Netanyahu hit back, telling members of his Likud Party yesterday: “Leadership is judged by the ability to implement decisions, difficult as they may be. We were not elected to make easy decisions.”
Under a formula drawn up by US Secretary of State John Kerry, Israel agreed last summer to free a total of 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners in order to restart peace talks with the Palestinians.
In exchange, the Palestinians dropped their long-standing demand for Israel to halt building of homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, areas captured by Israel in 1967 that they claim for their future state.
The Palestinians say they have received vague assurances that Israel would show restraint while the talks continue until an April target date for an agreement.