Israel announced it will release 26 veteran Palestinian prisoners ahead of a resumption of peace talks tomorrow, but at the same time angered Palestinians by approving new settlement construction.
A special ministerial committee announced on Sunday it had approved the 26 prisoners to be released “following the government decision to renew peace talks with the Palestinians,” according to a statement from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office.
The names of the prisoners — most of whom were arrested for killing Israelis and Palestinians suspected of collaboration with the Jewish state — were published early yesterday morning.
They are expected to be freed ahead of the start of talks tomorrow in Jerusalem between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.
The 26 constitute the first batch of a total of 104 long-term Palestinian and Israeli Arab prisoners to be freed in four stages, depending on progress in the talks.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat underlined the importance of the prisoner release for peace talks to continue.
“We hope to put into effect what we’ve agreed on ... we hope for the release of 104 prisoners. Each will return to his house. This is what we’ve agreed on,” he told Israeli Arabic-language radio yesterday. “There is a clear understanding between us and the Americans and Israelis. Any change [in that] will mean the agreement is off the table.”
However, the decision to free prisoners has angered the families of those killed in assaults.
“This is a day of celebration for terror organizations,” Meir Indor, head of Almagor, a group representing Israeli victims of Palestinian attacks, told reporters.
He said his group, which petitioned against the decision to the Israeli High Court of Justice before the names were released, was demanding to meet the three ministers who selected the prisoners — Israeli Minister of Defense Moshe Yaalon, Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni and Minister of Science and Technology Yaakov Peri — before deciding whether to launch a new petition.
Most prisoners being freed were arrested for “murder,” with five being “accomplices to murder” and one being guilty of “abduction and killing,” Israel says.
Three of the prisoners were imprisoned by Israel for killing Palestinians, presumably those they had deemed to be collaborators.
All prisoners had been arrested before 1994 except one, who was arrested in 2001.
Israeli Minister of Housing Uri Ariel of the far-right Jewish Home Party also reacted angrily to the impending releases.
“The terrorists who are being released murdered women and children, and it’s not clear to me how releasing murderers can help peace,” Ariel said in a statement.
Ariel’s ministry had on Sunday announced tenders for the construction of 793 settlement housing units in annexed east Jerusalem and 394 elsewhere in the West Bank in a move that infuriated Palestinians.
Media reports have implied that the construction announcement was meant to appease Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners.
Palestinians slammed the settlement announcement as a move aimed at “preventing” peace talks.
“Israel is attempting to prevent negotiations from taking place on Wednesday,” Palestinian negotiator Mohammed Shtayeh said.
However, Israel stood its ground, with Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev saying that since the new construction was designated for blocs, it will change “nothing.”
“The construction decided upon today in Jerusalem and in the settlement blocs are in areas that will remain part of Israel in any possible future peace agreement,” Regev said in a statement.