RAMALLAH, Palestinian Territories: Israel on Thursday handed over the remains of 91 Palestinians killed during anti-Israeli attacks, some of them more than 40 years ago, officials on both sides said.
Israel gave the bodies to the Palestinians before dawn, near the West Bank city of Jericho, with 79 of them immediately taken to Ramallah and the other 12 sent to Gaza.
"At 4:00 am (0100 GMT) today, we received the remains of 91 martyrs, 79 from the West Bank and 12 from Gaza who had been buried (by the Israelis) in an inhumane and unethical fashion in numbered graves in the Jordan Valley," said Hussein al-Sheikh, head of the Palestinian general committee for civil affairs.
The remains of the 79 were transferred to the Muqataa headquarters of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, where they were honoured with "an official ceremony and prayers for the dead," Palestinian prisoners minister Issa Qaraqaa told AFP.
The other 12 bodies were handed to Gaza's Hamas rulers through the Erez border crossing in the early afternoon.
As they arrived in the coastal territory, the dead were greeted by hundreds of people, senior Hamas officials and a guard of honour, who fired a 21-gun salute, an AFP correspondent reported.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Israel and the Palestinians to build on the gesture, in order to resume peace negotiations.
"We believe that there is opportunity for direct negotiations," she said during a visit to Copenhagen. "We hope it was enhanced by the release of bodies today by the
Israelis of Palestinians ... as a sign of confidence building.
"But they have to get to the negotiating table and deal with very hard issues," she said.
For his part, Abbas deplored the "obstacles to the peace process created by the insistence of the Israeli government on changing the international reference points and by not ending settlement in the Palestinian territories."
However, he added: "We will not renounce our sincere efforts to find a peaceful and political solution through negotiations."
The Palestinian Authority said the 91 "martyrs," included eight members of a commando unit killed in March 1975 in an Israeli assault on the Savoy Hotel in Tel Aviv where they had barricaded themselves inside with hostages.
Israeli public radio said the bodies also included those of militants responsible for a string of suicide bombings in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the southern city of Beersheva.
Families of the dead Palestinians said they had conflicting emotions.
"I have mixed feelings," said 70-year-old Mahira Misk, whose son Ezzedine was killed in a clash with Israeli troops in the West Bank city of Hebron in 2002.
"I wish they had released a prisoner so he could go back to his mother alive, instead of my son who is going to return to me as a dead body," she told AFP.
"But at least now I can visit his grave and read to him from the Koran."
For the family of Nasser al-Buz, who had been missing since August 1989, finding his name on the list was a shock.
"We were really surprised to see my brother's name on the list of martyrs," Subhi al-Buz said of his brother, who was on Israel's most wanted list during the first Palestinian uprising from 1987 to 1993.
"We always thought he was still alive somewhere," he said, adding that the family had for years asked Israel for confirmation he had been killed but had received no response.
Buz founded the Palestinian Black Panthers, a military wing of Abbas's Fatah faction.
"What happened to him? How did he die and why was the occupation silent for all these years?" his brother asked.
Israel said it hoped the gesture would build confidence between the two sides and help revive the moribund peace process, which ran aground in late 2010 in a dispute over persistent settlement building.
"We hope that this humanitarian gesture will serve both as a confidence building measure and help get the peace process back on track," said Mark Regev, spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Sheikh said another handover of bodies was likely to take place in the coming weeks.
"We started negotiating on a second batch, made up of 70 martyrs, and we expect to receive them next month. But there are some difficulties in the negotiations
because their names and identities are not clear," he said.