As deadline passes, PA says Israel has made clear it will not release prisoners

Final group were to go free Saturday, requiring ministerial approval 48 hours in advance, but ministers have not convened

Jibril Rajoub (Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
Jibril Rajoub (Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

RAMALLAH — Israel told the Palestinians it will not free the final batch of prisoners they had been expecting alongside US-brokered peace talks, a senior Palestinian official said on Friday.

The 26 prisoners were set to have been released on Saturday as part of ongoing peace talks. Israeli law requires that the government make the names of the prisoners selected for release known at least 48 workday hours before they are set free, to allow for the processing of High Court of Justice appeals. But the relevant five-minister committee chaired by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had not convened by Friday.

The Prime Minister’s Office turned down requests for comment on the issue. Tzipi Livni, the justice minister and the top negotiator with the Palestinians, said last week that there was never an “automatic commitment to release prisoners unrelated to making progress in negotiations.”

Under the deal that relaunched the talks last July, Israel said it would release 104 Palestinian prisoners held since before the 1993 Oslo peace accords in exchange for the Palestinians not pressing their statehood claims at the United Nations.

Israel has so far freed 78 prisoners, in three batches, but cabinet members had warned they would block the final release, anticipated for the end of March, if the Palestinians refused to extend the talks beyond their April 29 deadline.

“The Israeli government has informed us through the American mediator that it will not abide by its commitment to release the fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners scheduled for tomorrow, Saturday 29,” Jibril Rajoub told AFP.

“Israel has refused to commit to the names that were agreed upon of prisoners held by Israel since before the 1993 Oslo agreements,” Rajoub said.

Israeli officials had no immediate comment.

But Israeli ministers have said previously that the prisoner releases were always conditional on progress in the talks, which had failed to materialize.

A Palestinian woman waits in the northern Gaza Strip for released prisoners to come through the Erez Crossing, December 31, 2013  (photo credit: AP/Hatem Moussa)
A Palestinian woman waits in the northern Gaza Strip for released prisoners to come through the Erez Crossing, December 31, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Hatem Moussa)

Many also balked at the inclusion of Israeli Arabs among the prisoners slated for release.

Rajoub called the Israeli move a “slap in the face of the US administration and its efforts,” and said the Palestinians would resume their international diplomatic offensive.

“Not releasing the prisoners will mark the beginning of the efforts in the international community to challenge the legality of the occupation,” he said.

The talks have been teetering on the brink of collapse, with Washington fighting an uphill battle to get the two sides to agree to a framework for continued negotiations until the end of the year.

US Secretary of State John Kerry met Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Amman on Wednesday in a bid to salvage the talks, with US special envoy Martin Indyk meeting the Palestinian leader in Ramallah on Thursday.

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