Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas presented to US President Barack Obama two conditions for extending the deadline for negotiations with Israel: a complete settlement freeze, and the release of some 600 prisoners based on a set of Palestinian-determined criteria, a Palestinian official told The Times of Israel on Monday.
Kadoura Fares, a former Palestinian minister and current head of the Palestinian Prisoners Club, a nongovernmental organization dealing with prisoners’ rights, said that during his meeting with Obama in the US on March 17, Abbas demanded the release of three Palestinian leaders sentenced to long prison terms by Israel during the Second Intifada for their involvement in terror activities, in addition to a complete moratorium on settlement construction.
The three leaders are Fatah official Marwan Barghouti, convicted of five counts of murder in 2004; Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine Secretary General Ahmad Saadat, sentenced by a military court in 2008 for his involvement in the assassination of Israeli tourism minister Rehavam Ze’evi; and Fouad Shoubaki, a close associate of Yasser Arafat, sentenced in 2009 to 20 years in prison for his involvement in organizing the smuggling of arms into the Palestinian territories in 2002 aboard the ship Karine A.
In addition, Abbas demanded the release of severely ill prisoners, estimated by Fares to number 100-120; 19 women; children under the age of 18; and prisoners held by Israel in administrative detention. Fares estimated the total number of prisoners falling into those categories at 600.
He expected that the only group of prisoners to upset Israeli public opinion would be the three leaders.
“If Israel wants to place hurdles, it will focus on Ahmad Saadat and Marwan Barghouti. It will whine that they are so dangerous, which is of course not true,” Fares said.
“As for the others: The sick prisoners will be transferred directly from prison to hospitals — we’re talking about chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease, paralysis or severe psychiatric issues; the women — none of them did anything that can cause a problem in Israeli public opinion, only trivial things; the children [were arrested] for stone throwing; and the administrative detainees were never indicted, and include 11 elected members of the Legislative Council,” he said.
The Palestinian leadership will “under no circumstances” agree to forgo the release of 14 Israeli Arabs expected to be included in the final phase of prisoner release this week, Fares added.
“The Israeli prisoners are an integral part [of the deal], and it’s a matter of life and death. No one has the legitimacy to give them up,” he said.
The Times of Israel reported on Saturday that Israel offered to release 400 prisoners in exchange for a Palestinian agreement to extend negotiations until the end of the year.
Responding to the report, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the prisoner issue will be resolved “within days,” but insisted that Israel would free no more prisoners unless it knows exactly what it will get in return.
The release of Israeli Arab prisoners would require a special Israeli government vote, which has so far not been scheduled.
“We must stop the old and miserable Israeli habit of treating the [Palestinian] prisoners as numbers, as a herd,” Fares said on Monday. “We should not cite numbers at all, but focus on criteria. The Palestinian leadership should be party to setting the criteria; it’s not an exclusive matter for Israel to deal with, or a domestic Israeli issue.”
On Monday evening, Abbas is scheduled to meet with the PLO’s Executive Committee, an 18-member body comprising the movement’s senior leadership. Fares said Abbas would update the leadership on the situation and reach operative decisions.
“If we remain stuck, I don’t think Abu Mazen (Abbas) and the leadership will agree for things to remain stuck for long. We must proceed to real negotiations, not for negotiations to serve as cover while Israel continues building settlements.”