Israel to free ‘heavyweight’ Palestinian prisoners for peace talks

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A number of “heavyweight” Palestinian prisoners will be released by Israeli authorities in order to resume peace talks, government minister Yuval Steinitz said on Saturday.

The move comes a day after the U.S. announced direct peace talks will resume between the two sides.

“There will be a limited release of (Palestinian) prisoners,” Steinitz, the minister in charge of international relations, strategic affairs and intelligence, told public radio without giving numbers.

"There will be some release of prisoners," Steinitz told Israel Radio. "I don't want to give numbers but there will be heavyweight prisoners who have been in jail for tens of years," he said. The release would be carried out in phases, he added.

According to the Israeli rights group B’Tselem, there are 4,713 Palestinians prisoners in Israel, including 169 in administrative detention where they can be held without charge for renewable periods of up to six months.

The Palestinians, with international backing, have said negotiations over their future state must have borders approximating the boundaries of those territories before Israel captured them in a 1967 Middle East War.

Israel has balked at this demand, saying such borders would be indefensible for the Jewish state. Steinitz said there had been no Israeli concession on that point and on the Palestinian demand that Israel halt all construction in its West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements.

"There is no chance that we will agree to enter any negotiations that begins with defining territorial borders or concessions by Israel, nor a construction freeze."

U.S. Secretary of State Kerry announced on Friday that an accord had been reached to resume talks between the Middle East rivals, which have been frozen since September 2010.

Kerry’s announcement came after he spent four days consulting the Israeli and Palestinian leadership from his base in an Amman hotel.

“I am pleased to announce that we have reached an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming direct final status negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis,” he told reporters in Amman just minutes before boarding his plane to fly home.

“This is a significant and welcome step forward,” he added, having doggedly pushed the two sides to agree to resume talks in six intense trips to the region since becoming the top U.S. diplomat in February.

(With AFP and Reuters)