(photo credit: AP [file])
A group of 255 freed Palestinian security prisoners made their way home Friday afternoon on the final leg of their journey which started at Ketziot Prison early Friday morning.
Upon addressing the former inmates at the Mukata 'presidential' compound in Ramallah, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas said: "This is just the beginning. Efforts must continue. Our work must continue until every prisoner returns to his home."
PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad and other PA ministers also greeted the prisoners at the Mukata and they were joined by MK Ahmad Tibi (UAL) who met with Abbas earlier Friday morning.
While in Ramallah, the freed prisoners placed wreaths on former PA chairman Yasser Arafat's grave.
Before arriving in the West Bank city, a cheering crowd, waving Palestinian flags and holding pictures of Abbas and Arafat, greeted the released prisoners as they reached the Palestinian side of the Beitunya checkpoint, between Givat Ze'ev and Ramallah.
Some prisoners knelt and kissed the ground as they arrived at the checkpoint and boarded the buses. Leaning out of bus windows, some flashed V-for-victory signs and held up Palestinian flags and posters.
Head of the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria, Brig.-Gen. Yoav Mordehai, met with senior Fatah official Hussein al-Sheikh and PA Minister for Prisoners Affairs Ashraf Ajrami at the checkpoint ahead of the prisoners' arrival.
Hamas belittled the release. "This step has no real value because most of the prisoners are from one faction, and most were about to be released," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri.
Meanwhile, some 20 families of terror victims and Jewish security prisoners held a protest against the prisoner release in front of the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem.
The protesters voiced their opposition to the gesture and called for Jewish prisoners to be released first, Israel Radio reported.
Friday morning's prisoner release was slightly delayed after one of the prisoners was required to undergo additional security and legal checks.
The prisoner remained in detention after the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and Israel Prisons Service (IPS) discovered that he belonged to Hamas.
The man was sentenced to 10 years in jail in 2000 for attempted murder while he was a Tanzim operative but he had since joined Hamas, Israel Radio quoted the Shin Bet and IPS as saying. He is set to serve the remainder of his sentence.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said the prisoner release was part of a package of goodwill gestures that was to give new momentum to stalled peace efforts.
"We're hopeful that the combined steps by the Israeli government and the Palestinian government can bring about a new period of cooperation and dialogue, that we have turned the corner on the negative dynamic," Regev said.
Palestinian officials said they hoped more inmates would be freed soon.
"This release breaks the ice between us and the Israelis on the issue of prisoners," said Ziad Abu Ein, the Palestinian deputy minister of prisoner affairs.
The High Court of Justice removed the last hurdle on Thursday evening, and the IPS put the final touches on preparations for the largest prisoner release since 2004.
In recent days, the 250 male prisoners slated for release were transferred from the jails where they were serving their sentences to Ketziot. There, they signed a form in which they promised not to engage in terrorist activities following their release, and underwent a special identification process to confirm that they were, in fact, the same people who appeared on the release list.
The six women slated for release were held at the Sharon Prison Complex's special bloc for women security prisoners.
The High Court of Justice rejected a petition submitted by the Almagor Terror Victims Association in which the group argued that "the cabinet should have no access to anything connected with convicted prisoners."
Attorney Naftali Wertzberger, representing Almagor, argued before the court that the "use of prisoners [for political gain] who have been sentenced in a court and jailed is unlawful. The idea that prisoners, just because they belong to Fatah, merit an end-of-season price like this is just too much."
Even before the court issued its ruling, Israel Prisons Service Chief Warden Benny Kaniak held an early-morning planning meeting during which he decided that all 256 prisoners would be taken to Beitunya and loaded on to Palestinian buses.
The IPS's Nachshon Prisoner Escort Unit was tasked with bringing the handcuffed prisoners from Ketziot Prison to the hand-off spot.
The six women had a much shorter journey than the two-and-a-half-hour ride that the male prisoners took, but they too ended up at the same checkpoint at around 10 o'clock.
The prisoners were escorted off the buses by Nachshon Unit members, where they were handed briefly to the custody of the IDF Military Police.
Rebecca Anna Stoil and AP contributed to this report