- A formal military ceremony is held at the Palestinian Authority compound
- An Israeli spokesman says the gesture was done to help the peace process
- Some in Israel criticize the move
In what has been described as a humanitarian gesture, the Israeli government on Thursday handed over the remains of 91 Palestinians killed in attacks against Israeli targets over the past four decades.
The remains, which had been interred in numbered graves by Israel, began arriving in the West Bank and Gaza early Thursday, the Palestinian Authority-controlled WAFA news agency reported.
The remains of 79 Palestinians were delivered to the seat of the Palestinian government in Ramallah, West Bank, where Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas presided over an official military ceremony.
The 79 caskets, wrapped with the Palestinian flag, were carried by the Palestinian presidential guard into the main square of the presidential compound. Abbas, family members of those killed and other honorees stood by as 21-gun salutes were fired.
Abbas laid a wreath on the caskets, and a formal prayer was given by the former mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Mohammed Hussein. The ceremony was broadcast on Palestinian television.
The remaining 12 bodies were to be delivered to families in Gaza.
Among the returned will be the remains of seven Palestinians involved in a 1975 attack against The Savoy hotel in Tel Aviv. Those remains, along with some that are unidentified, will be buried in the Ramallah military cemetery.
Some families were demanding DNA testing to verify the identities of the remains.
The return of the remains was meant as a "confidence-building measure to help get the peace process back on track." said Mark Regev, an Israeli government spokesman.
"Israel is ready for the immediate resumption of peace talks without any preconditions whatsoever," he said in a statement.
The return was harshly criticized by some in Israel, who compared it to last year's exchange of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups on the Gaza border captured Shalit in 2006.
Meir Indor, chairman of Almagor, the Israeli association of terror victims, told CNN that releasing the remains would only serve "for the continuation (of) terror."
"Beyond our personal feelings, it is devastating to see the hard murderers that were released last year under the Shalit deal becoming a building block in the Palestinian campaign of propaganda and (being) glorified as freedom fighters," Indor said.
"The Palestinian society must show disapproval of their actions. This is another stage in the making of terrorist theology."
Most Israelis consider the remains to be those of terrorists, but many Palestinians view the men as martyrs in the decades-old struggle to establish a Palestinian state.
Fatima Abdul Karim of the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center, which helps Palestinian family members find missing relatives, called it "a very special and historic moment."
While the release of the remains is good news, she noted that hundreds of Palestinians remain missing.
"It is a success, but that is not the end of the story," Abdul Karim said. "There are stories that are still being unraveled."
Mohammad Shtayyeh, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's central committee and a senior Palestinian negotiator, noted in comments to CNN that although 91 sets of remains were received, "we did not receive all of them, and it is with great bitterness that we received their remains."
He said many Palestinians were hoping prisoners still alive in Israeli jails would also be released.
"To keep human bodies in cemeteries ... in graves that (have) no names," only numbers, he said, "just shows how ugly the Israeli occupation is."
Ahmad al-Bouz was shocked and surprised to learn the remains of his brother Nasser were being returned by Israel. For 23 years, the family has not known what happened to him.
"All these years, we believed he was missing," al-Bouz said. "We have consulted every human rights organization, but to no avail." He said his family asked the Israeli government about his brother in the past, but was told no information was available.
He said his family is still seeking information and will examine the body and conduct DNA testing on the remains.
Ghazi Jarwan, the father of a Palestinian militant killed while participating in a 2003 Tel Aviv attack that killed five Israelis, described the return of his son's remains as cause for celebration.
"I am happy, because I am proud of my son and consider this a national wedding for my son," he said.