Sources in both the Palestinian Authority and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office denied a claim that Israel would release some 550 Palestinian prisoners before US President Barack Obama arrives in the region on March 20.
US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro assured Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that Israel has agreed to the move, according to the Monday report in Maariv, which based its story on a PA source.
Among the prisoners that the PA source claimed would be freed are Ahmad Saadat, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti.
Barghouti was sentenced in 2004 by an Israeli court to five life terms in prison for his involvement in terror attacks. Saadat is serving a 30-year term for killing Israeli tourism minister Rehavam Zeevi in 2001.
Nimar Hamad, Abbas’s diplomatic adviser, denied that Israel had agreed to release Barghouti or Saadat. In a radio interview on Sunday to the Voice of Palestine, Hamad said the Palestinian president is working very hard to bring international pressure to force Israel to release all Palestinian prisoners, particularly those whose lives are in danger due to hunger strikes.
Ziad Abu Ein, the Palestinian deputy minister of prisoners’ affairs said his office is trying to use the upcoming Obama visit to push Israel into releasing as many prisoners as possible. He added that according to an agreement in place with Jerusalem, Israel is obligated to release all prisoners arrested before the 1993 Oslo Accords went into effect.
Obama is due here on March 20; he will spend two full days in Israel, and will travel to Ramallah for a meeting with Abbas during the trip.
Israel has released Palestinian prisoners as goodwill gestures before. In 2007 and 2008, then-prime minister Ehud Olmert released hundreds of prisoners during talks with the PA.
At the opening of last Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said the presidential visit will focus on three issues: Iran’s progress toward nuclear capability, the deteriorating situation in Syria, and the diplomatic process with the Palestinian Authority.