A committee of Israeli cabinet ministers on Sunday approved the release of 26 long-serving Palestinian prisoners, including those jailed for killing Israelis in attacks before the 1993 Oslo accords.
The release is the second phase of prisoner releases agreed to as part of a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in July. A total of 104 prisoners jailed before the Oslo agreements are being released in four stages. The first group was released in August.
A statement from the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the group of prisoners to be freed had been serving terms of 19 to 28 years, and would be released as early as Tuesday. Twenty-one prisoners are from the West Bank and five from the Gaza Strip, the statement said, adding that any who resume hostile activities would be returned to jail for the remainder of their term.
The Palestinian Authority has long demanded the release of long-serving prisoners jailed before the Oslo agreements between Israel and the PLO, which outlined a framework for Palestinian self-rule and talks on a permanent peace agreement.
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Secretary of State John Kerry has set a target of nine months to reach an agreement in the current negotiations, which are proceeding under a tight cloak of secrecy with little information released on their progress.
At stake are core issues of dispute that have confounded previous attempts to negotiate a peace accord: the borders of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees who fled or were expelled from their homes in fighting when Israel was established in 1948, and the future of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Prior to the vote on the prisoner release, a ministerial legislative committee rejected a proposed bill by the rightist Jewish Home party, a senior partner in Netanyahu's coalition, that would have prevented further releases of Palestinian prisoners. Netanyahu, who had already committed himself to the prisoner release, exerted heavy pressure on ministers to vote down the measure.
In tandem with the vote on the prisoner release, an official in Netanyahu's office confirmed media reports that the government would soon publish bids for further construction of hundreds of homes in West Bank settlements and in East Jerusalem. The planned building, leaked last week to local media, appeared to be an attempt to appease right-wing critics of the prisoner release, who have argued that the killing of three Israelis in recent attacks in the West Bank underlined the danger of freeing convicted murderers.
The release has also been condemned by a group representing relatives of Israelis killed in Palestinian attacks. The group has called for a protest outside the main West Bank prison to block the release.