Israeli released the names of 26 Palestinian prisoners on Monday or Tuesday, in advance of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s return to the region later this week to advance the peace process.
A ministerial committee was expected to meet either very late Saturday night or on Sunday to decide on the names for what will be the third release out of four, by which 104 Palestinians will be freed from Israeli jails over the nine month negotiating period that ends in April. Fifty-two Palestinians prisoners were freed in two past releases.
Opponents of the release held a rally in Jerusalem outside Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s home on Saturday night calling on the government to refuse to release the prisoners most of whom were involved in terror attacks.
They held up photographs of the victims and signs that said, “you should be embarrassed. Only in Israel are killers freed.”
The government has no plans to revisit the initial decision taken in July to free the prisoners. Israel has no choice but to honor its agreement on this score that it made to the United States, Science and Technology Minister Yaakov Peri (Yesh Atid) said in Tel Aviv on Friday as he spoke at a StandWithUS event.
Peri, who is the the former head of the Shin Bet, is also a member of the ministerial committee that decides which prisoners will be released. He said that he had personally been involved in the arrest of many of the 104 prisoners that he is now voting to free. “It was not easy to get them into jail or to prove that they had killed. I know each one of them. But a democratic state that has signed on an agreement has to honor it. It is hard it is tragic, it is painful and it raises questions, that I myself do not even know how to answer,” Peri said.
Once the minister’s decide on the names, Israel Prison Services will post the list and there will be a short window for a legal appeal before the prisoners are freed.
They will be taken to the Mukata in Ramallah where a celebratory ceremony will be held with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
In conjunction, the government is poised to announce new construction over the pre-1967 lines, as it did after the past two prisoner releases. The media has reported that tenders will be published for 600 new homes in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo and another 800 in West Bank settlements. But no formal announcement with exact details of the new building has been made.
Separately, the Justice Ministry has authorized the Defense Ministry to treat illegal Jewish and Palestinian building in Area C of the West Bank as a criminal activity. In the past the ministry through the Civil Administration has only had the authority to demolish illegal buildings, but has not been able to criminally pursue those who were breaking the law. When he spoke in Tel Aviv on Friday Perry said it was a “mistake” to link new building over the pre-1967 lines with the release of prisoners. “It is harmful to the bereaved families. How does such building help them,” he said.
Any new building, Peri said, should be in the settlement blocs, which will become part of Israel in any final status agreement. “Most of the people in Judea and Samaria will be gathered in those blocs. We will have to evacuate a certain percentage, something on the order of 15 to 25 percent,” Peri said.
Israel has also insisted that it must maintain a security presence in the Jordan Valley. On Sunday MK Miri Regev is expected to bring forward a bill to the Ministerial Legislative Committee that calls on Israel to annex the Jordan Valley.
The Palestinians have rejected all proposals with respect to the Jordan Valley and have insisted that Israel must withdraw to the pre-1967 lines, except for minor land swaps.
A senior Fatah official Jabril Rajoub told Channel 2 on Saturday night that Netanyahu was killing the peace process by continuing to build in the West Bank.
With respect to the Jordan Valley he said, “why do you have to stay there. Are we neighbors or enemies? If we are neighbors we will arrange for security with the Americans and the Jordanians. There is no option for the Israelis to stay there. The Jordan Valley is an agriculture project and has no connection to security,” he said.
A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Kerry will visit Jerusalem and Ramallah late next week for more talks with Netanyahu and Abbas. Kerry wants the sides to agree to a framework for an interim accord ahead of a deal in April, which would launch another year of talks aimed at a full-blown peace treaty. A framework would demonstrate that progress is being made in talks that began in July, according to US officials.
A framework would touch on all the main issues, including security, the future of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
Nabil Sha’ath, a top Fatah official, told the Bethlehem-based Ma’an news agency that the Palestinians wish to reach a peace agreement with Israel.
“But what Israel is proposing, including slicing off parts of our land, security control [over the Jordan valley], rejection of Palestinian sovereignty over Jerusalem and the demand to recognize Israel as a Jewish state make it impossible to reach a deal,” he added.
Sha’ath stressed that the Palestinians won’t recognize a Jewish state. “We want to ask Kerry, would he agree to our recognition of the US as a Christian state?” he said. “How do they want us to recognize the usurper of our land and cancel our history and presence over this land? How do they expect us to gamble on the presence of one and a half million Palestinians inside [Israel]? This is pure fantasy.”
Sha’ath said he did not expect Kerry to carry anything new during his next visit to the region. “The negotiations have not stopped and they are continuing,” he said. “We are committed to the conditions of the talks until the end of the nine-month deadline in April 2014. We won’t accept any interim agreement. There will be no new Oslo Accord.”
The PA leadership was proceeding with plans to seek membership in United Nations agencies and organizations should the peace talks with Israel fail, Sha’ath said.
He added, that the year 2014 would witness an “activation of the resistance against occupation.” He said that the Palestinians were also planning to seek membership in UN agencies and organizations and end the Fatah-Hamas dispute.
“We need to resort to a smart, effective and non-violent struggle so that the world would support us,” Sha’ath, a former PA foreign minister, said. “The negotiations [with Israel] have not moved one step forward and did not achieve the minimum of what was available for us in the year 2000. The US is unable to exert pressure on Israel to give us our rights.”
Reuters contributed to this report.