Late Saturday night a ministerial committee approved a list of 26 Palestinian prisoners to be freed overnight between Monday and Tuesday, prior to US Secretary of State John Kerry’s return to the region later this week to advance the peace process.
The names of the prisoners were posted on the Israel Prisons Service website immediately following the vote.
This is the third release out of four, which all told would free 104 Palestinians from Israeli jails over the nine-month negotiating period that ends in April. Of these, 52 Palestinian prisoners have been freed in the 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 free 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 its initial decision in July to let the prisoners go.
Israel has no choice but to honor its agreement with the US on this score, Science, Technology and Space Minister Yaakov Peri said in Tel Aviv on Friday as he spoke at a StandWithUs event.
Peri, formerly head of Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), is a member of the ministerial committee that decides which prisoners are to be released. He said he had personally been involved in the arrest of many of the 104 prisoners set to go 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.
All 26 prisoners have been jailed for 19 to 28 years. There is a small window for a legal appeal before the prisoners are freed.
Once released, they are to be taken to the Mukata presidential compound in Ramallah, where a celebratory ceremony is expected to be held with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
In conjunction, the government is poised to announce 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 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 building has yet 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 offense. In the past, the ministry, through the Civil Administration, has only had the authority to demolish illegal buildings. This is the first time it has been authorized to criminally pursue builders.
When he spoke in Tel Aviv on Friday, Peri said it was a “mistake” to link 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 would 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 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 area.
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.
Senior Fatah official Jibril 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 agricultural project and has no connection to security.”
US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that Kerry would travel on January 1 to Jerusalem to meet with Netanyahu and to Ramallah to meet with Abbas. Kerry phoned Abbas on Saturday night to discuss the peace process according to the Bethlehem-based Ma’an news agency.
According to US officials, 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, the officials said. It 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 Ma’an 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 would not 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 bring 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 to end the Fatah-Hamas dispute.
“We need to resort to a smart, effective and nonviolent 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.”