JERUSALEM: Israel has begun releasing 26 Palestinian prisoners, most held for deadly attacks, ahead of renewed Mideast negotiations.
The Israeli prison service said buses carrying the inmates left a jail in central Israel late Tuesday.
Celebrations are planned in the West Bank and Gaza where they are viewed as heroes. Their release is very painful for Israelis who view them as terrorists. Israel released them late at night to prevent a spectacle.
Israelis and Palestinians are to launch talks in Jerusalem on Wednesday, following a preparatory round two weeks ago in Washington. The prisoner release is part of an agreement to restart the talks after a five-year freeze.
Israel is moving forward with building nearly 900 new homes in east Jerusalem, an official said Tuesday, a decision that angered Palestinians before Mideast peace talks were to begin for the first time in years.
The Israeli announcement could affect Wednesday's talks, which come after months of mediation by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. In an initial gesture ahead of the talks, Israel was set to release 26 Palestinian prisoners, many involved in deadly attacks, late Tuesday.
The last round of substantive talks collapsed in late 2008, and negotiations have remained stalled mainly over the issue of Israeli settlement construction on territories claimed by the Palestinians for their future state. The Palestinians say the settlements, now home to more than 500,000 Israelis, is making it increasingly difficult to carve out their state and that continued Israeli construction is a sign of bad faith.
Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, said Israel's settlement plans are a slap in the face of the Palestinians and Kerry. "It is not just deliberate sabotage of the talks, but really a destruction of the outcome," she said.
Ashrawi urged Kerry "to stand up to Israel" and deliver a tough response.
Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, rejected the Palestinian claim.
"The Palestinians know that Israel rejected their demands of a settlement freeze as a precondition to these talks, they cannot say otherwise," Regev said.
There was no immediate U.S. comment. On Monday, Kerry repeated the U.S. position that the settlements are "illegitimate," while saying he didn't think the recent flap over Israeli settlements would delay talks.
"I'm sure we will work out a path forward," Kerry said.
The latest construction is to take place in Gilo, an area in east Jerusalem that Israel considers to be a neighborhood of its capital. Israel's annexation of east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as their capital, is not internationally recognized.
The housing plan, which received initial approval last year, would expand Gilo's boundaries further toward a Palestinian neighborhood. The plans for 900 housing units in Gilo come in addition to an earlier announcement this week of some 1,200 other settlement homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Efrat Orbach, an Interior Ministry spokeswoman, confirmed that approval had been given for the Gilo expansion. She said more approvals are needed before construction begins. But Lior Amihai of anti-settlement group Peace Now, said the plan needs no further approval and construction could begin within weeks.
The Palestinians had refused to resume negotiations with Israel unless it halted settlement construction. Israel has refused.
After six trips to the region, Kerry managed to persuade Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to drop the settlement issue as a condition for negotiations to start.
In exchange, Israel will release 104 Palestinian prisoners serving long sentences, many for involvement in killing Israelis. The first batch of 26 inmates was set to be released by midnight (2100 GMT, 7 p.m. EDT).
Israel's Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected an appeal by families who lost loved ones in Palestinian attacks to block the release.