By Noah Browning and Nidal al-Mughrabi
BRUQEEN, West Bank/GAZA (Reuters) - Returning home 24 years after stabbing to death an Israeli settler in the rocky hills above his village, freed Palestinian prisoner Mustafa al-Haj has missed the milestones of a generation.
Al-Haj was one of 26 Palestinians released by Israel in the early hours of Wednesday, despite protests from the families of their victims, as a goodwill gesture aimed at paving the way for renewed U.S.-mediated peace talks in Jerusalem.
Eleven of the men went back to their homes in the occupied West Bank, while the other 15 returned to the Gaza Strip. Most had spent two decades behind bars and must now confront lost youth, altered families and a challenging new landscape.
"I feel like I'm in a new world," al-Haj told Reuters.
"The house I grew up in has changed. I was the youngest brother, but now they have sons that are taller than me, praise God! The neighborhood has changed, a whole new generation was born and another one died. It's strange," he said.
Viewed in Israel as terrorists, the prisoners got a hero's welcome in the West Bank from the Palestinian government - which did not exist when most were first jailed - and from relatives, many of whom could not see them during their incarceration.
"It hurt us that I got married and had children and he was away. We'll have to get him married, get him a job," al-Haj's brother Fareh said at the family home.
Money will not be an immediate concern. The Palestinian Authority pays freed, long-serving prisoners an average 4,000 ($1,120) shekels a month, regarding them as returning soldiers.
Such benefits anger ordinary Israelis and even ministers in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet question whether any other states would sanction mass releases of convicted killers.
Al-Haj was found guilty over the 1989 killing of Steven Rosenfeld, 48, who had moved to the West Bank settlement of Ariel from the United States. The Israeli army subsequently blew up his home as punishment and to try to dissuade other Palestinians from violence.
The house has long since been rebuilt and was draped in lights to greet al-Haj. Other new sights also awaited, including nearby Jewish settlements that were once just a few caravans are now towns sprawling over the horizon.
When al-Haj was arrested, the West Bank settler population was 69,800. Israel's Army Radio says the number is now 367,000. Despite this, his family believes that he and fellow Palestinian militants did force concessions from Israel.
"Do you think if he hadn't done what he did there would be a Palestinian Authority now? Now we have a government, we can negotiate, and resistance can be through words and negotiations," said Hatem, his brother.
Bowing to U.S. pressure, both the Israelis and Palestinians have agreed to resume talks following a three-year hiatus - the prisoner release helping to convince Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to return to the negotiations.
But not all the freed Palestinians appeared to appreciate the renewed dialogue with their sworn enemy.
"We do not support negotiation," said Samir Murtaja, a senior member of the Islamist Hamas militant group in Gaza, who was freed after being jailed in 1993 on charges of killing four Palestinians suspected of spying for Israel.
He was arrested just two months after getting married and his relatives greeted him in the coastal enclave with a wedding-style celebration - a car bedecked with flowers whisking him around his neighborhood amid raucous honking and music.
"I did not expect such a great welcome from my people," he told Reuters, calling on all other Palestinians to be freed from Israeli jails - by force if necessary. "They must not be let to spend 20 years of their lives in jail like we did," he said.
Twelve years into his term, Israel quit the Gaza Strip and ceded it to Palestinian control. Two years later, a brief civil war split the Palestinians between Hamas in Gaza, which refuses to renounce violence, and Abbas's secular Fatah party in the West Bank, which supports negotiations.
Most prisoners freed on Wednesday were Fatah supporters, who were eager to see a better future.
"My thinking has changed. I want peace, I want to move forward not backwards," said Mikdad Abdel Salah, 47, who was sentenced to life in prison for the 1993 killing of Israel Tenenbaum, a hotel guard from near Tel Aviv.
Posters of Salah were hung from the windows and roofs of houses in his West Bank village, Burqa, and crowds gathered round as he wandered through the streets finding old friends.
"They shed our blood and we shed their blood ... We are a people who have suffered a lot, enough blood has been shed."
(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Alison Williams)