JOHN DAVISON | AFP ARABNEWS
Published — Tuesday 31 December 2013
The release prompted elation among Palestinians, who welcomed the prisoners back into the West Bank and Gaza Strip after they had spent two to three decades in Israeli jails.
But as Kerry geared up for his 10th visit since March, an anticipated announcement by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government of further settlement construction — designed to appease hard-liners — looked set again to undermine the talks.
Kerry, expected to arrive Wednesday, has been pressing the two sides to agree on a framework for a final peace agreement ahead of an agreed late April target date for the talks to conclude.
The prisoners were the third batch of 104 detainees that Netanyahu pledged to release in four stages when the peace talks were revived in July. All were imprisoned before the 1993 Oslo accords, which officially launched the Middle East peace process.
Palestinians hailed the freed prisoners as heroes imprisoned for fighting against the Israeli occupation, with some welcomed back to Ramallah in the West Bank, others to east Jerusalem and the remainder into the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
The 18 men taken to Ramallah were warmly embraced by the Western-backed Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in his presidential compound before laying flowers on the grave of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Abbas pledged to the prisoners and their exuberant families that “there would be no final agreement (with Israel) until all prisoners were in their homes.”
The Islamist Hamas movement ruling Gaza hailed the prisoner release, but reiterated its rejection of the peace talks and slammed the notion that freeing prisoners justified Israeli settlement expansion.
“The release of any prisoner is a gain for our people,” Gaza’s Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya told a news conference in the besieged Palestinian territory.
“But we reject negotiating with the occupation (Israel) and we do not accept that settlements should be expanded in exchange for that.”
Netanyahu criticized the heroes’ welcome given to the released prisoners, who had served 19 to 28 years for killing Israeli civilians or soldiers.
“While we are prepared to take very painful steps in an effort to try and reach an agreement … they, along with their highest leadership, are celebrating,” he told a conference in the northern Israeli town of Tiberias.
“Murderers are not heroes,” Netanyahu said.
Tuesday’s release was expected to be accompanied by the announcement of new construction plans for Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, including east Jerusalem, as the previous two prisoner releases were.
Such a move is likely to infuriate the Palestinians and the international community, providing a further challenge for Kerry, whose intense shuttle diplomacy managed to revive the talks after a three-year hiatus.
The pressure on Netanyahu to make such an announcement comes both from within his own coalition government — the housing minister lives in a West Bank settlement and hard-liners oppose any peace talks — and from the Israeli public.
Kerry will also have to quell tensions that rose after an Israeli ministerial committee on Sunday gave initial approval to a bill annexing Jordan Valley settlements, a largely symbolic move expected to be shot down by the government.
A poll conducted by Jerusalem’s Hebrew University said Tuesday that 63 percent of Israelis and 53 percent of Palestinians supported a two-state solution.
Around 41 percent of some 600 Israeli respondents said the Jewish state should “yield” to any US pressure to accept a two-state solution, but 43 percent were against.
The prisoner release, shortly after 0000 GMT, came after an Israeli court rejected a last-minute appeal by victims’ families.
The families had especially protested the release of the five east Jerusalem prisoners, which they said contradicted a committment made by Netanyahu.