Israel to release 104 Palestinian prisoners
Move a goodwill gesture ahead of Middle East peace talks in Washington
An Israeli holds a picture of a victim of a militant attack during a protest yesterday outside the office of Israel’s prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, against the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners as a step to renew stalled peace talks with the Palestinians. Photograph: Reuters/Ronen Zvulun
Israel has approved the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture ahead of tomorrow’s scheduled re-opening of Middle East peace talks in Washington.
The veteran detainees, including many classified by Israel as having “blood on their hands,” will be released in four batches, every two months, as the negotiations progress.
The cabinet also agreed that any peace agreement which requires Israel to relinquish sovereign territory will be put to a referendum. The referendum Bill, which is expected to be approved by the Knesset parliament, refers only to areas of east Jerusalem annexed by Israel, and not the West Bank which is not sovereign Israeli territory.
The referendum Bill passed with relative ease, although some ministers voted against arguing that holding Israel’s first-ever referendum would undermine the sovereignty of the elected government.
The discussions on the prisoner release were much more charged. Polls released over the weekend showed more than 80 per cent of the public opposed releasing militants who had taken part in some of Israel’s most notorious attacks resulting in the death of civilians.
Bereaved relatives campaigned against the move calling it immoral and a betrayal.
After a lengthy debate 13 ministers voted in favour, seven against and two abstained.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said the decision was not just, but necessary.
“This moment is not easy for me. It is not easy for the ministers. It is not easy especially for the bereaved families whose heart I understand. But there are moments in which tough decisions must be made for the good of the country and this is one of those moments.”
Palestinian officials had made it clear ahead of the vote that tomorrow’s talks would be in jeopardy unless all 104 detainees are set free.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat welcomed the Israeli decision. “We believe it is an important step and we hope to seize the opportunity provided by the efforts of the US administration to achieve a durable and just peace.”
The inclusion of 14 Israeli-Arabs on the list was especially problematic from the Israeli point of view, forcing Mr Netanyahu to promise another cabinet meeting to approve their release.
Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing Jewish Home party, was amongst the ministers voting against. He told families of terror victims protesting against the decision that terrorists should be eliminated not released.