In a goodwill gesture aimed at resuming peace negotiations, Israel returned the bodies of 91 Palestinian militants Thursday to the West Bank and Gaza.
The dead included suicide bombers and other terrorists responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israelis, mostly civilians, over the last three decades.
Among them were the suicide bombers from the August 2003 No. 2 bus attack in Jerusalem and at Cafe Hillel in the city's German Colony the following month. The dead also included Abdullah Badran, a suicide bomber who killed four Israelis at Tel Aviv's Stage nightclub in 2005; Hiba Daraghmeh, the woman who killed three people in 2003 when she blew herself up at a mall in Afula; Hassan Abu Said, the Islamic Jihad terrorist who blew himself up at an open-air market in Hadera in 2005, killing five people; and Labib Azzam, who in 1995 murdered five Israelis and wounded 23 others in Ramat Gan.
Seventy-nine of the bodies were delivered to representatives of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank, where they were immediately transferred to the Mukata headquarters of PA President Mahmoud Abbas. There, the PA held a "national rally" to honor the "martyrs," which was attended by Abbas, PLO leaders, and families of the dead.
The coffins, adorned with Palestinian flags, then were taken by the relatives for full military burials in their hometowns.
Another 12 coffins were delivered to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, where they were greeted by hundreds of Palestinians and a 21-gun salute by an honor guard.
Work on the transfer began in January during exploratory discussions between Israeli and Palestinian envoys in Jordan. International powers urged Israel to offer goodwill gestures to keep the talks going and, unwilling to meet Abbas' demand for prisoner release, Israel settled on the repatriation of dead Palestinian terrorists instead.
More remains are scheduled to be transferred in the following weeks, while a decision on a prisoner release has not yet been made.
"We hope that this humanitarian gesture will serve both as a confidence-building measure and help get the peace process back on track," said Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev. "Israel is ready for the immediate resumption of peace talks without any preconditions whatsoever."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton commended the gesture. "We believe that there is opportunity for direct negotiations. And we hope it was enhanced by the release of bodies today by the Israelis of Palestinians," she said Thursday in Copenhagen.
Despite the tough Israeli decision, Abbas said he still abhorred 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."