On New Year's Eve, the families of 26 Palestinian prisoners who have been held in Israeli prisons for decades gathered outside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's headquarters in Ramallah in order to receive their newly-released relatives.
They were met by the president, who vowed not to "sign a final peace deal with Israel until all the prisoners have been released."
The prisoners are being released as part of US-brokered Israeli-Palestinian talks, which begun last July. They have been kept in Israeli custody for between 19 to 28 years.
While the prisoner releases -- which are phased over four stages, the third of which was completed on 31 December -- are seen as tangible results of the talks, many activists have bemoaned their real effect and leverage on the talks.
An all-too-familiar cycle of recriminations followed the release of the prisoners.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu openly criticised Abbas's exoneration of the prisoners, whom he described as "terrorists.”
Abbas, on the other hand, trumpeted the event as an "achievement," according to Abir Kopty, Palestinian activist and blogger.
"As much as I'm happy about the release of the prisoners, I'm worried about how these prisoners are being used by the Palestinian Authority," she told Ahram Online.
She believes the prisoners are being exploited in the talks as Palestinian negotiators use the releases as a distraction from more pressing issues.
Releasing prisoners as part of a peace package by US Secretary of State John Kerry is, in her point of view, only intended to "legitimise Palestinian concessions to the Israelis" and "silence opposition to their political agenda."
According to a report published by Palestinian prisoner support and human rights association Addameer, the releases fall short of guaranteeing "the end of Israel’s policies of mass detention and arbitrary arrest," and leave out the rights of over 5,000 prisoners who are currently in detention, including 136 held under the in-place 1948 administrative detention law.
To restart talks in late July, Israel made a commitment to release prisoners jailed before the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. The Israeli government couched the prisoners as criminal offenders charged with acts of terrorism and manslaughter.
The 104 prisoners were rather held over from a batch of 12,000 political and other detainees, whose wholesale release was stipulated in Oslo Accords I and II.
A provision added later to the Oslo II agreement provided that only detainees who were not involved in committing a “fatality or serious injury” would qualify to be freed.
While sticking with the phased release of prisoners, Israel has accompanied the August and October releases with tit-for-tat announcements to initiate the construction of thousands of new settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, largely tying the releases to settlement-building.
Anticipated news of Israeli military administration’s approval of the construction of 250 settler homes at Ofra and 22 at Karnei Shomron was held off from 31 December until Kerry’s tenth visit to the region was wrapped up on Monday.
"Israel is using the prisoner releases as a cover for building more settlements," Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the online Palestinian website Electronic Intifada, told Ahram Online. "Neither the US, nor the EU, nor Arab regimes impose any cost on Israel for continuing to steal Palestinian land so why should Israel feel any reason to stop?"
The formula has excessively undermined the Palestinian bargaining position in the talks, activists said.
"Israel and the US have the upper hand in all this negotiation process," Kopty admitted, adding that "Abbas and his gang have no power at all, and unfortunately they agree to these terms and play within them."
It has been suggested that Palestinian negotiators have implicitly agreed to the exchange deal, despite pledges from the Israeli side to “show restraint” in its building of settlement homes, AP had previously reported.
The exchange has led Palestinian negotiators to make "get the minimum with maximum concessions," according to Kopty.
Moreover, the decision on the criteria, conditions, dates, and phases of the releases is entirely determined by the Israeli government, which controls the entire process, an Addameer report maintained.
Activists remain sceptical
"Our Palestinian political prisoners shouldn't be used as cards for any concessions to our rights," says independent activist and campaign coordinator Abbas Hamideh, who manages the Global Campaign for Palestinian Political Prisoners (GCPPP), previously known as the Free Samer Issawi Campaign.
Hamideh is wary of the role of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the negotiations.
"We of course caution the PA and the world that we do not approve of making any back-handed concessions of our lands and rights for any reason. The release of prisoners should not come at the expense of surrendering our legal and moral rights to our homeland Palestine," he told Ahram Online.
Kopty also raises the question of "who is Abbas representing in these negotiations?"
"His term ended a long time ago, and the Palestinian National Council is not directly elected by all 11 million Palestinians, so they have no legitimacy to make decisions on our behalf," she added.
Having brought to light the cases of Palestinian legendary hunger strikers such as Khader Adnan and Samer Issawi and many others, Hamideh continues to fight for the release of all prisoners in Israeli prisons.
"Regardless of the order of the Palestinian political prisoners being released we are happy to see them come home to their families; it is only natural pre-Oslo or otherwise," he said.