- Associated Press - Thursday, May 31, 2012

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israel on Thursday handed over to the Palestinian government the remains of 91 militants who had been killed while carrying out suicide bombings and other attacks in an effort to renew long-stalled peace talks.

The bodies had been buried in coffins in Israel and were dug up for the transfer. Seventy-nine were transported to Ramallah, which is run by the Palestinian Authority, and 12 to the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, which is run by the rival Islamic militant group Hamas.

Israeli officials handed over the remains to Palestinian liaisons in the Jordan Valley, according to Palestinian official Salem Khileh.

“We hope that this humanitarian gesture will serve both as a confidence-building measure and help get the peace process back on track,” Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said. “Israel is ready for the immediate resumption of peace talks without any preconditions whatsoever.”

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gave no sign that the gesture would persuade him to return to talks.

The “major obstacles to resuming negotiations” were Israel’s refusal to freeze all settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and the need to negotiate on the basis of the lines Israel held before capturing those territories in 1967, he said Thursday in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Palestinians see those areas as the core of a future state that would also include Gaza. Israel rejects that demand.

Israeli-Palestinian talks stalled more than three years ago and have failed to take off again despite U.S. mediation, primarily because of the dispute over settlement construction.

The transfer of the bodies came a day after Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel cannot wait forever to reach accord, suggesting the government could consider taking unilateral action.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday that unilateral action isn’t a substitute for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on a two-state solution. She also told reporters in Denmark that prospects have improved with the emergence of a new Israeli coalition government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Dozens of Islamic Jihad fighters and families holding framed pictures of their dead relatives welcomed the 12 coffins as they entered Gaza, draped with Palestinian national flags that were then presented to families. Women ululated and threw rice and sugar over the coffins. Hamas police officers fired 21 shots into the air in salute.

Thousands spilled into Gaza’s streets for the funeral procession, many stopping to mark a moment of silence. Islamic Jihad fighters armed with machine guns and hand grenades wore white robes and masks — clothes meant to symbolize the martyrdom of the suicide bombers.

All 91 returned were killed carrying out attacks on Israeli targets, Palestinian officials said. At least one of the attacks dated back to the 1970s.

Two armed men, clad in black uniforms and bandanas, kissed the forehead of a suicide bomber’s mother as the vehicle carrying his body arrived. Her 21-year-old son, Ramzi Obaied of Islamic Jihad, killed 24 Israelis in a 1996 attack in Tel Aviv.

“My son was a hero,” said the black-clad woman, who identified herself as Um Hidar. “The enemy feared him even after his death, for they kept his body.”

Mirvat Zaoul’s husband, Mohammed Zaoul, killed four Israelis in a 2004 suicide attack in Jerusalem. She said she thought her 11-year-old son would be sad to hear that his father’s remains would be returned to the West Bank.

“But he was happy,” she said. “He said, ‘I’m going to visit his grave every day and put a flower there for him.’”

Daraghmeh reported from Ramallah, West Bank.