Israel agreed Sunday to release 26 long-serving Palestinian prisoners as part of a U.S.-brokered deal that led to the resumption of Mideast peace talks.
The Cabinet vote set into motion the second leg of prisoner releases agreed upon before Israel and the Palestinians renewed long-frozen peace negotiations in August. At the same time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is planning on approving new settlement construction to appease hard-liners who oppose the release.
The fate of Palestinian prisoners stirs strong emotions on both sides, highlighting the competing narratives of the conflict. Many of those to be freed were involved in killing Israelis.
Most Palestinians view the prisoners as heroes, regardless of their acts, arguing they made personal sacrifices in the struggle for independence. Most Israelis view them as terrorists for targeting civilians.
In all, 104 Palestinian prisoners are to be released in four stages during the nine months set aside for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
The vote followed an Israel announcement that it will soon advance new West Bank settlement construction plans - highlighting an apparent settlements-for-prisoners trade-off that got both sides back to peace talks after a five-year freeze.
The Palestinians consider settlements a major obstacle to establishing a state that includes the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 war. Israel has built dozens of settlements since that are now home to about 550,000 Israelis.
The Cabinet announcement said all the prisoners have served more than 19 years and their crimes preceded the beginning of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in 1993. A government statement said 21 of the prisoners will be released to the West Bank and the other five to Gaza.
The actual release of the prisoners will take place at least 48 hours after their names are published to give bereaved Israeli families the opportunity to appeal their release before the courts, which rarely intervene in such cases.
Israel insists that any prisoner who resumes hostile activity will be arrested and incarcerated to serve the remainder of his sentence.
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