BAQA AL-GHARBIYAH — US Secretary of State John Kerry has promised Palestinian officials that peace negotiations will not resume before Israel agrees to release all 100-plus pre-Oslo prisoners, an Arab member of Knesset told The Times of Israel on Thursday. He said this group included 21 prisoners who are either Israeli citizens or Jerusalem residents and whom Israel has reportedly 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.
There was no immediate response to the claim from the US State Department or the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office.
Considerable confusion has prevailed since last Friday, when Kerry announced in Amman that “we have reached an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming negotiations” and said he anticipated hosting Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Washington within a week or so. Israel formally confirmed that it was expecting to resume talks — and Energy Minister Silvan Shalom said Thursday that they might begin on Tuesday — but two spokesmen for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said the framework for such negotiations was not fully resolved. The spokesmen, Nabil Abu Rdeneh and Yasser Abed Rabbo restated Palestinian preconditions, including that the talks on Palestinian statehood would be held on the basis of the pre-1967 lines, which Israel has rejected.
In remarks after meeting with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday, the US secretary sounded strikingly more cautious than he had been in Amman six days earlier, intimating that not all was agreed. “Both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas have made a courageous decision to try to return to final status talks,” Kerry said. “And it’s my hope that that will be able to happen as procedures are put in place by both countries in order to empower that.”
Israeli Minister of Intelligence and of 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.
Despite their claims of American assurances, MK Sarsur and Balad party leader Jamal Zahalke, who also attended the conference, were unsure whether Abbas would indeed insist on the inclusion of the 21 additional prisoners ahead of renewed negotiations.
The two parliamentarians told the audience that they had requested a meeting with Abbas two weeks ago, but were atypically brushed off.
“I will settle for a statement by Abu Mazen (Abbas) including a commitment that the prisoner issue remains a condition for negotiations,” said Zahalke. “We demand a clear commitment. If none will emerge, we will react forcefully with all the tools at our disposal.”
But it was unclear what leverage the Arab politicians could exert over the PA in their efforts to secure the release of the Israeli Arab and Jerusalem prisoners. One idea raised at the event was to pitch a protest tent across from the presidential compound in Ramallah, housing the families of the Israeli prisoners. One participant suggested that Arab MKs meet with chief negotiator Saeb Erekat ahead of talks and squeeze a commitment from him.
Zahalke said that if public pressure to release the entire list were strong enough, Abbas could not ignore it even if he wanted to.
“The Palestinian Authority is the strongest player in the entire equation,” Sarsur told The Times of Israel. “It can decide whether it is willing to resume negotiations and under what conditions.” He added that a number of prisoners he recently met with said they would rather peace talks not resume than be left out of a release deal.
For Abbas, the release of the entire list would be a lifeline, Sarsur added. The Palestinian leader had delivered nothing economically or politically to his people in the West Bank.
“This is the sole track on which Abu Mazen can show his people some results,” he said.
Ayman Hajj Yahya, a former Fatah prisoner from Taibeh and secretary of the Prisoner Union, said it was the responsibility of the PA leadership to release the Israeli Arab prisoners, since they were operating on their behalf and following their orders.
“Those who sent them to carry out these operations are the leaders of the PA,” Hajj Yahya told The Times of Israel.
At the back of the hall stood Ayman Daqqa, 12, holding a framed portrait of his uncle Walid Daqqa behind a graphic of prison bars and a white dove symbolizing freedom. A red speech bubble emerged from his mouth reading “We want freedom.” Daqqa, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and resident of Baqa Al-Gharbiyah, was sentenced in 1987 to life in prison for the kidnapping and murder of Israeli soldier Moshe Tamam.
Ayman Daqqa said he only met his uncle twice in jail when he was five or six, but couldn’t remember him.
“I don’t know if I should be happy or not,” he said, referring to his uncle’s possible release. “We should be patient and wait for him to be freed.”