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Defense minister said to promise to look into request

Abbas asked Gantz to release 25 Palestinian prisoners in December meeting — report

Palestinian Authority leader reportedly said move would bolster his Fatah party by demonstrating that diplomacy is more effective than Hamas kidnappings

Left: Defense Minister Benny Gantz. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File); Right: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, Pool, File)
Left: Defense Minister Benny Gantz. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File); Right: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, Pool, File)

During a meeting in December, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas asked Defense Minister Benny Gantz to release over two dozen Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, the Yedioth Ahronoth daily reported Sunday.

Abbas, meeting with Gantz at the Israeli minister’s home in Rosh Ha’ayin, reportedly pitched the goodwill gesture as a way of boosting support for his Fatah party, as it would demonstrate to the Palestinian people that diplomacy is more effective at securing the release of prisoners than kidnapping Israelis to hold as bargaining chips — a strategy employed by Fatah’s rival, the Hamas terror group.

Citing two senior Palestinian sources familiar with the developments, the newspaper said that Abbas made the same request when Gantz met with him in the West Bank city of Ramallah in August last year.

The 25 prisoners on the list are members of Fatah who were imprisoned by Israel before the 1993 Oslo Accords, which formed the Palestinian Authority. Some of those prisoners are suffering from serious health issues, according to the report.

The report did not say which prisoners Abbas was seeking to have released, but for inmates to have been held for such lengthy periods of time they would need to have been convicted of deadly terror attacks.

Abbas told Gantz that securing the release of veteran prisoners would prove to the Palestinian public that Fatah’s path of diplomacy is better than the kidnappings favored by Hamas, and bolster Fatah’s position in the face of rising support for Hamas, which is based in the Gaza Strip.

Gantz reportedly told Abbas he would look into the matter, without giving a firm answer. The minister’s office said in a response to Yedioth that it would not comment on the details of security meetings.

According to the report, Israel’s diverse government is unlikely to be able to approve the release of convicted terrorists, even those jailed before Oslo.

Following the December meeting, Gantz announced several “confidence-building measures,” including approving the inclusion of 6,000 West Bank residents and 3,500 Gaza residents in the PA’s resident registration, on a humanitarian basis; advancing the transfer of NIS 100 million ($32.2 million) in tax payments; and adding 600 BMC (businessman card) approvals for senior Palestinian businesspeople, as well as 500 permits for businesspeople with such approvals to enter Israel with their vehicles, and dozens of VIP permits for PA senior officials.

The meeting was strongly criticized by right-wing opposition parties and some hawkish members of the ruling coalition, which includes factions spanning the political spectrum and has clashed over various policy matters, including those pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Gantz pushed back at the criticism, saying “the need to maintain Israel’s security” was the main focus of his meeting with Abbas, along with countering Hamas.

The last time Israel released prisoners as a goodwill gesture to the Palestinians was in 2013 under the government of then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. At the time, Israel released a total of 78 prisoners in three stages, most of them Fatah members. A planned fourth release of prisoners never came about as diplomacy collapsed, with Israel citing an earlier Palestinian push to join international treaties affiliated with the United Nations.

Abbas would likely have asked for the freedom of at least some of those who were up for release at the time, Yedioth reported.

In response, Palestinian Authority officials said they consistently ask Israel to free prisoners, including elderly prisoners, children and those imprisoned by Israel before the Oslo Accords.

“The issue of prisoners is a constant demand in all dialogues and at all levels,” Abbas adviser Hussein al-Sheikh wrote in a tweet.

Abbas spokesperson Nabil Abu Rudeineh told Voice of Palestine Radio that PA officials always discuss “the prisoner issue” with their Israeli counterparts, without commenting on the specifics of the report.

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