The announcement came after Palestinian officials accused Israel of trying to sabotage the peace talks by approving new settlement homes.
Israel’s government has given details of 26 long-term Palestinian prisoners to be freed as part of a deal which will see peace talks resume this week, the BBC reports. A list of names chosen by a ministerial committee was published overnight. The prisoners will be freed today delay allows time for last-minute legal challenges by victims’ families.
The announcement came after Palestinian officials accused Israel of trying to sabotage the peace talks by approving nearly 1,200 new settlement homes. Direct negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are scheduled to take place in Jerusalem tomorrow (Wednesday), two weeks after a preparatory round in Washington.
An Israeli government spokesman rejected Palestinian criticism of the housing announcement, saying every peace initiative so far had proposed that the settlements in question become Israeli territory. Palestinian officials said that 20 of them belonged to President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement while the others were from rival groups including Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
The decision was made after a meeting chaired by Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon and including Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Science Minister Yaakov Perry, as well as the heads of the Israeli Prison Service and the Shin Bet security service. The statement stressed that “if one of those released will return to engage in hostile activity against Israel, he will be returned to complete his sentence”. A small group of victims’ relatives had protested against the releases outside the Israeli Supreme Court in Jerusalem. “These are not political prisoners, they are terrorists and murderers who will be returning home to a hero’s welcome,” said Gila Molcho, whose brother Ian Feinberg was murdered by gunmen while working in a European Union-funded aid office in Gaza in 1993.
“My brother was a lawyer, a man of justice, and we also deserve justice,” she said. Also approved for release are two men jailed for carrying out a knife-attack on a crowded bus in Ramat Gan in 1990, killing one man and wounding three other passengers. Husseini Sawalha and Mohamed Abdel Majid Sawalha were both arrested in December 1990. A total of 104 Palestinians jailed for attacks carried out before 1993 are due to be freed in four stages over the next few months, as part of the agreement to restart US-brokered direct peace talks after a three-year hiatus. The victims’ families can appeal to the Supreme Court, but it rarely intervenes in such cases. Health Minister Yael German told Israeli public radio that the prisoner release was painful but appropriate for the sake of peace. She was quoted as saying the dialogue with the Palestinians was like a baby, which could die at any moment given the wrong care. Prisoner affairs minister Issa Qaraqa described the decision as a strategic step towards the release of all Palestinian detainees.
The Israeli announcements on prisoner releases and settlement construction were reportedly co-ordinated with US officials as part of the pre-talks framework agreed by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Washington in late July. Palestinians condemned the Israeli ministry of housing’s decision to issue tenders for building 793 housing units in East Jerusalem and 394 elsewhere in the West Bank, but stopped short of threatening to abandon the talks.