A ministerial committee headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved on Sunday the names of 26 Palestinian prisoners to go free on Tuesday. The planned release constitutes the second phase of a four-stage prisoner release deal, agreed to as part of ongoing US-brokered peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians.
A government statement said 21 of the inmates were from the West Bank and five were from the Gaza Strip. “A list of the prisoners is to be published Sunday night on the website of the Israel Prisons Service, after the bereaved families have been informed,” the statement said.
All of the prisoners committed their crimes before the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.
The releases were expected to be accompanied by the announcement of new plans for West Bank settlement construction, a senior Israeli official said.
The religious, nationalist Jewish Home party has bitterly attacked the planned prisoner releases in recent days. On Sunday, the party proposed legislation to prevent future releases. Opposed by Netanyahu, the bill was rejected by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation in an 8-5 vote.
The Jewish Home’s decision to push forward with the bill drew harsh criticism from Likud ministers and other coalition partners.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnua), who is heading off negotiations with the Palestinians, criticized Jewish Home and said that the committee vote showed which coalition parties truly had the nation’s needs at heart.
“Today it has once again been made clear that the government, in contrast to one of its member parties, is acting in the national interest and not according to the instructions of the rabbis in the West Bank,” she said.
Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar (Likud) denounced the Jewish Home ministers for failing to toe the government line.
“You are responsible just like all the other members of the government,” he said to Pensioners Minister Uri Orbach (Jewish Home). “If you don’t like it, you can resign.”
Although the prisoner release deal was approved by Netanyahu, Jewish Home, led by Economics Minister Naftali Bennett, blamed Livni for it.
MK Ayelet Shaked of Jewish Home told Channel 2 Saturday that Jewish Home had made its opposition clear to Netanyahu. “We told the prime minister that we are against the release of terrorists. It’s immoral. No other country in the world does it,” she said.
Jewish Home also made plain it was not appeased by news of further homes to be built in the settlements. In a statement on Thursday, the party said that “the attempt to link the release of the murderers to construction tenders is manipulative and morally wrong. It will be better if the prime minister does not release murderers and does not build. This looks like a despicable attempt to free murderers and tarnish the settlement enterprise.”
Hatnua’s Environment Minister Amir Peretz said earlier Sunday that Jewish Home could have prevented the release by agreeing to a halt in settlement building, but is instead trying to paper over its own involvement in the government move.
“What is happening in front of our eyes is the biggest dance of hypocrisy I’ve ever seen by a party,” Peretz, a former defense minister, told Army Radio. “On the one hand it sits within the government, and on the other hand it takes advantage of the convenience of being in the government to fulfill its objectives; participates in the vote on the prisoner release, and prevents any way of discussing another option.”
A senior Israeli official said the Americans and Palestinians were aware of Israel’s intentions to build more settlement homes, which had been made clear before talks resumed. The official said that any new construction would take place inside the major blocs Israel aims to keep in any future peace deal. In previous rounds of negotiations, the Palestinians agreed in principle to swap some West Bank land for Israeli territory to allow Israel to annex some settled areas adjacent to the 1967 lines.
Netanyahu has faced pressure from hawkish ministers to delay or cancel the prisoner releases in the wake of a series of violent incidents in the West Bank in recent weeks, including the killing of two IDF soldiers and an attack that wounded a 9-year-old girl in the settlement of Psagot.
Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon (Likud) also slammed the planned prisoner release, saying it only strengthened terror. “We’ll see the celebrations in Gaza, in Ramallah, in Nablus. This only strengthens those who seek to harm [us],” he told Army Radio Saturday. “Any approval of settlement construction should not be linked to these releases,” he added.
Netanyahu has resisted the pressure from the right and plans to release the prisoners on schedule, the prime minister’s representative in the peace talks, attorney Yitzhak Molcho, assured Palestinian and American officials in recent days.
In July, Israel agreed to the four-phase release of 104 prisoners, many of whom were convicted of brutal murders, serving sentences for acts of terror committed before the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. Twenty-six prisoners were released in the first wave on August 13, just after talks started.
The deal was intended as a sign of good faith ahead of the renewed American-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.