Israel announced it will release 26 veteran Palestinian prisoners ahead of a resumption of peace talks on Wednesday, but at the same time angered the Palestinians by approving new settlement construction.
A special ministerial committee announced late 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 the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
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 Monday morning.
They are expected to be freed ahead of the start of talks Wednesday in Jerusalem between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.
The decision to free prisoners has angered families of those who 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 AFP on Monday.
He said his group, which had petitioned without immediate success the High Court of Justice against the decision before the names were released, was demanding to meet with the three ministers who selected the prisoners -- Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Science and Technology Minister Yaakov Peri -- before deciding whether to launch a new petition.
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.
Most prisoners 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 arrested and 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.
Housing Minister Uri Ariel of the far-right Jewish Home party also reacted angrily.
“Terrorists belong in prison,” Ariel said in a statement on Monday. “The terrorists who are being released murdered women and children, and it’s not clear to me how releasing murderers can help peace.”
Ariel’s ministry had on Sunday announced tenders for the construction of 793 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, who oppose the release of prisoners but fervently promote settlement construction.
“I don’t know of such a deal, but look -- both were announced on the same day,” Indor said.
Palestinians welcomed the impending prisoner release, but slammed the settlement announcement as a move aimed at “preventing” peace talks.
“It is clear that the Israeli government is deliberately attempting to sabotage US and international efforts to resume negotiations by approving more settlement units three days before the ... Palestinian-Israeli meeting,” Palestinian negotiator Mohammed Shtayeh said.
“Israel is attempting to prevent negotiations from taking place on Wednesday.”
But Israel stood its ground, with a spokesman for Netanyahu 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,” Mark Regev said in a statement.
“This in no way changes the final map of peace. It changes nothing.”
Direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians were resumed in Washington last month, ending a three-year hiatus after painstaking U.S. mediation.
The last talks in 2010 broke down on the issue of settlement building.