Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will hold their first substantive peace talks in nearly five years Wednesday, hours after Israel released 26 long-held Palestinian prisoners. But Israel's plan to build new settlements on occupied land and the airstrikes against Gaza on Wednesday have many Palestinians doubting that the latest effort to conclude the two-decade Oslo peace process will bear much fruit.
Preliminary talks were held two weeks ago in Washington, but both sides have low expectations as they head into the U.S.-sponsored negotiations led by U.S. Envoy Martin Indyk in Jerusalem. Like the first round of "final-status" talks that collapsed in acrimony at Camp David in 2000, the goal of the current negotiations is to achieve a political settlement to the conflict based on the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Hours before the talks, the Israeli military carried out an air strike that it said had targeted rocket-launching equipment in Gaza. No one was killed in the attack, which the army said was in response to a rocket fired into Israel the previous day.
Wednesday’s negotiations also come a day after Israel freed 26 Palestinian prisoners, some of whom had been held for decades. The prisoners got a boisterous reception as they returned home Tuesday night, as part of a deal designed to create political cover for Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to return to negotiations. But some Israelis protested the release of men convicted of murder.
Jubilant crowds gathered at the presidential compound in Ramallah on the West Bank and in Gaza to greet the freed prisoners, after a last minute appeal by families of the Israeli victims to stop the release was rejected by the Israeli High Court.
"We tell the released prisoners and we tell you, that the rest of the prisoners will come out, you are just the beginning and the rest will come, and you will see them here," Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said.
According to Israeli human rights group B'Tselem there are more than 4,800 Palestinians in Israeli jails.
Josh Lockman, an international law and foreign policy professor at the University of Southern California, told Al Jazeera on Tuesday that the release -- brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry -- was a "significant gesture."
"This was a decision that was met with tremendous criticism, especially amongst families of the victims who were killed by some of these prisoners, so this was a serious gesture by the Israeli government and it remains to be seen to what degree it will embraced by the Palestinian side," Lockman said.
In all, 104 prisoners are due to be freed depending on progress between the two sides.
But many questions remain about why an attempt to broker peace this time will be different than the failed talks in the past.
Lockman said the U.S. is looking toward a much more limited objective this time around in the elusive question for peace between both sides.
"A victory here by the Americans would be carving out agreements between the Israelis and the Palestinians on what will constitute the final borders of the future Palestinian state," he said. "If the Israelis and the Palestinians can agree on the border and the contours for the Palestinian state that would be a tremendous victory."
In recent days Israel approved the building of thousands of new homes in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, both of which were occupied in the war of 1967 and where Israeli settlement is deemed illegal by the U.N. Though downplayed by Washington, the construction of settlements on Palestinian land remains one of the most contentious negotiating issues.
Israel had earlier rejected Palestinian demands to stop settlement expansion as a precondition for resuming the talks.
Al Jazeera and wire services