Protest against release of Palestinian prisoners - AFP
Israeli protesters hold placards as they demonstrate in the city of Tel Aviv on December 26, 2013 against the release of Palestinian prisoners. Photo by AFP
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The Ministerial Committee for Prisoner Releases approved late Saturday night the release of 26 Palestinians who were imprisoned before the Oslo Accords, as part of the diplomatic process being conducted with the Palestinians. 

In a brief statement made by the Prime Minister’s Office, it was announced that the prisoners to be released had served terms of between 19 and 28 years. The names of the prisoners posted over night on the website of the Israel Prison Service.

The release itself will only take place at least 48 hours after the names are posted, to allow anyone who objects to the release of any of the prisoners to petition the High Court of Justice. The prisoners will apparently be freed during the night between Monday and Tuesday. The prisoners will be the third batch out of 4 to be released since the start of negotiations in July. 

The PMO statement stressed that during the ministerial debate, it was made clear that any of those released who return to terrorist activity would be recaptured and put back into prison to serve out their sentences. All had been sentenced to life imprisonment, and all were convicted of murder or accessory to murder.

The confirmation of the prisoner release had been preceded Friday by an announcement that Israel intends to build 1,400 homes in West Bank settlements, a move Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said would “destroy the peace process” and could be met with retaliation.

The release of the prisoners – the third group to be freed since the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks resumed last July – is seen by the United States as an important confidence-building measure, as it presses both sides toward reaching an interim peace agreement. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will arrive in Israel on Wednesday for meetings in meetins on the peace talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah.

Despite Palestinian warnings, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to announce the new housing tenders following the release of the prisoners. According to an official in Jerusalem, Netanyahu is refusing to heed the United States’ request to postpone the announcement of the new tenders and is also rejecting warnings by the European Union on the matter.

On Friday, Science Minister Jacob Perry (Yesh Atid) criticized the tying of settlement construction to the release of Palestinians.

“I am angry that the prime minister and other elements in the government are tying the prisoner release with construction,” said Perry, at an event in Tel Aviv hosted by StandWithUs, an American pro-Israel advocacy group. “Will the bereaved families be consoled by the fact we’re going to build a thousand more [housing] units in Itamar or Alfei Menashe? What’s the connection? This irritates me.”

Perry also sharply criticized Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon for his claim that there is no Palestinian partner for a peace agreement.

On Friday, Haaretz reported that Ya’alon told a group of business leaders: “Don’t delude yourselves. We don’t have a partner on the Palestinian side for a two-state solution.”

“You can’t be part of a government that is in the midst of conducting negotiations, and declare them a failure from the start,” Perry said. “Either you don’t enter negotiations, or you give it a chance.”

Perry also attacked Economy Minister Naftali Bennett. “I am angry that ministers in the government of Israel are giving the public a sense of ‘Let them keep talking, that’s fine, because nothing will come out of it,’” he said.

The science minister said that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to present a framework agreement that will address the final status issues.

“The Americans are trying to do unprecedented work,” Perry said. “Kerry has taken this up almost as his own main mission. The security arrangements he’s offering are more than reasonable. They are almost hermetic.”

Channel 10 reported Friday that Kerry had offered to free convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard as part of the release of the fourth and last batch of Palestinian prisoners.

However, the report added that Jerusalem doubts Pollard will be released, since Israeli officials do not believe the offer has the approval of U.S. President Barack Obama.

Israeli lawmakers renewed calls for the release of Pollard following recent reports based on documents leaked by whistle-blower Edward Snowden, that the United States had spied on at least two sitting Israeli prime ministers.

Pollard, a former civilian U.S. Navy intelligence analyst, received a life sentence in 1987 after being found guilty of spying on the United States for Israel. He is incarcerated at a federal jail in North Carolina.

Kerry is expected to return to Israel and the Palestinian territories on Thursday, a senior U.S. government official said yesterday.

The U.S. official said Kerry will visit Jerusalem and Ramallah late this week for more talks with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, resuming his intensive shuttle diplomacy after a Christmas break.