Israel has agreed to release 24 Israeli Arab prisoners serving life sentences who were incarcerated before the 1993 Oslo Accords, having already agreed to free 82 pre-Oslo Palestinian prisoners, Israel Radio reported Saturday. The releases would be carried out in phases, the radio report said, in parallel with progress at Israeli-Palestinian peace talks which are set to resume next week.
If true, this would appear to mean all the pre-Oslo prisoners would go free as the talks continue. The Palestinian Authority had long sought the prisoners’ release as a precondition for resuming talks, a demand Israel refused. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had reportedly long been offering to free several dozen of the pre-Oslo prisoners, many of whom were convicted for terrorist crimes involving multiple murders, but had balked at releasing them all.
As recently as last week, officials in Jerusalem said Israel would release the 82 veteran Palestinian prisoners, gradually, during the negotiations but was refusing to release the Israeli Arab prisoners.
For his part, PA President Mahmoud Abbas, speaking to Arabic media Saturday in an apparent reference to the freeing of the prisoners, said he was expecting “good news” on Sunday.
At the regular cabinet meeting on Sunday, Netanyahu is set to authorize a ministerial team to handle the release of the Palestinian prisoners.
US Secretary of State John Kerry announced in Amman on July 19 that a basis for the resumption of negotiations had been worked out and that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators could be expected in Washington within a week or so. However, in the following days Palestinian officials claimed that the framework for the negotiations was not fully resolved — and restated their demands for the release of pre-Oslo Palestinian prisoners and for the use of the pre-1967 lines as the basis for negotiations on a Palestinian state.
An Arab member of Knesset told The Times of Israel on Thursday that Kerry had promised Palestinian officials that negotiations would not resume before Israel agreed to release all the 100-plus pre-Oslo prisoners. He said this group included 21 prisoners who are either Israeli citizens or Jerusalem residents and whom Israel had steadfastly refused to free as a goodwill measure to boost negotiations.
MK Ibrahim Sarsur (Ra’am-Ta’al) said that intense pressure exerted by Palestinian politicians and Arab Israeli members of Knesset succeeded in convincing the Americans to accept the Palestinian precondition of releasing all Palestinian security prisoners sentenced in Israel before the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. He made the comments after a press conference Thursday that was organized by the Arab Union of Prisoners and Liberated Prisoners, an NGO that deals with incarcerated Palestinians and their families within Israel.
“An hour ago, Kerry asked the Palestinian side to send him the list [of prisoners] after reviewing it. He promised that he will not summon the sides to the first meeting of negotiations before granting the Palestinians Israel’s agreement to release the full list, not part of the list,” Sarsur told The Times of Israel following the press event.
Israeli Minister of Intelligence and International Relations Yuval Steinitz told Israel Radio on July 20 that Israel would release prisoners involved in “serious cases” as part of the renewed talks, but did not specify an exact number of prisoners. Israeli media later cited 82 as the number to be released in four phases, as negotiations progress. That number reportedly excluded 14 prisoners with Israeli citizenship and 7 Jerusalem residents.
Out of a total of roughly 5,000 Palestinians currently serving time in Israeli jails on security convictions, 140 hold Israeli citizenship. Fourteen of those prisoners were sentenced before the Oslo accords, signed between Israel and the PLO.