The prisoner release is an important strategic step, one that will strengthen the chances for peace in the region, a Palestinian Authority minister said on Monday, hours after an Israeli ministerial panel approved the names of 26 Palestinian prisoners to be freed in the coming days. The release is a gesture to the PA ahead of the second round of peace talks due to commence Wednesday in Jerusalem. The two sides are set to meet again the week after in the West Bank town of Jericho.
“The deal is an important step that also strengthens the Palestinian Authority,” said Prisoners’ Affairs Minister Issa Karaka, quoted by Army Radio, welcoming it for three reasons: there are to be no deportations of prisoners, unlike in the Shalit deal, he said; Israeli Arabs are included in the list of 104 prisoners to be released in four phases as the talks progress; and the Palestinians had to give nothing in return for the release.
In a later interview with Army Radio, the PA’s former Prisoners Affairs minister, Ashraf al-Ajrami, said that the chances these men would return to terror were very low.
“These people are old, tired; they want a moment of rest, to see what’s left of their lives. I don’t think they will return to terror,” said Ajrami.
Family members of terror victims petitioned the High Court of Justice on Monday to halt the release of the prisoners, claiming that counter to government promises, half of those on the list were tried after Israel and the Palestinians signed the Oslo accords. The families’ lawyer, Naftali Wertzberger, said the ministerial committee tasked with selecting those to be freed were only authorized to include those convicted prior to the signing of the Oslo agreements.
The prisoners’ release was also criticized by politicians belonging to both the opposition and the coalition.
A leading Shas MK called the release “immoral” and speculated that the United States, the main broker of the current round of talks, was well aware that Israel would announce the construction of settlement units in return.
“This was all coordinated with the Americans,” said former housing and construction minister MK Ariel Attias in an interview with Israel Radio on Monday. “It’s a case of releasing prisoners in exchange for building [settlements].”
Attias further claimed that the plan to build nearly 1,200 housing units in the West Bank and Jerusalem had been “dusted off to keep the coalition [of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] together.”
On Sunday, Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel (Jewish Home) announced that 793 new apartments would be built in Jerusalem, and 394 in large settlement blocs in the West Bank.
The Shas MK, whose party sits in the opposition in the Knesset, was apparently referring to reports two weeks ago that Netanyahu secured the national religious Jewish Home party’s commitment to remain in the government, despite its objection to the prisoner release, by offering thousands of housing starts in the West Bank.
Attias further asserted that a public referendum of Jewish Home voters would find the majority prefer freezing settlement construction to releasing the prisoners and noted it was the first time that Israel had made such a move not in order to save soldiers’ lives or return their bodies.
A panel of government ministers decided on Sunday who will be the first 26 names on the list of 104 Palestinians to be set free, many of whom were convicted of terror acts against Israeli civilians and soldiers.
Ariel condemned the prisoner release, according to a report from Walla news on Monday.
“The place for terrorists is in prison,” Ariel said. “Otherwise the state is making a mockery of its justice system that sentenced these despicable murderers to extended sentences.
“The terrorists that they decided to release murdered women and children and it is not clear to me how releasing murderers can advance peace. Releasing terrorists and achieving peace are two opposite things.”
Senior Citizens Affairs Minister Uri Orbach (Jewish Home) admitted to Israel Radio that he had no expectations of success from the current round of peace talks because, he said, the Palestinians are looking for every opportunity to back out of them. Though he objected to the prisoner release, Orbach noted that any government that builds on the West Bank is a government with which the Jewish Home can be a partner.
“Should we accept the bad and not have the good?” he said.
MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid) also expressed his dismay at the prisoner release during an interview with Israel Radio on Monday.
“In my opinion, of all the alternatives that there were, releasing prisoners is the least moral and the most damaging to the state’s authority,” he said.