Netanyahu Rejects Palestinian, U.S. Request to Bring Forward Next Round of Prisoner Release

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Israel has rejected a request by the Palestinian and American governments that the planned release of a second group of Palestinian prisoners be moved up by two and a half weeks, Haaretz has learned.

The release was originally scheduled to take place on October 29. But the Palestinians wanted it moved up to coincide with the Feast of the Sacrifice, which begins this Sunday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has told both the United States and the Palestinian Authority recently that he will release the prisoners as scheduled, despite the escalation in anti-Israel terror attacks over the last month and the right’s demands that the release be canceled. But he would not agree to advance it, according to a senior official briefed on the issue. He said the prisoners would be released strictly according to the understandings and the timetable agreed on before the talks began.

“We did not take on any commitments with regard to freezing construction in the settlements,” the official added.

Under an American-brokered deal to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the cabinet agreed in late July to release 104 Palestinian prisoners in four installments over the course of the scheduled nine months of talks. All have been in jail since before the Oslo Accord was signed in 1993, and all were sentenced to lengthy prison terms for involvement in terror attacks in which Israelis were killed.

In order to win the support of some of his ministers for this move, Netanyahu added a clause to the cabinet resolution stipulating that the prisoner releases would depend on the progress of the talks. But Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has claimed that under the understandings reached with the Americans, the prisoners are to be freed independent of the talks’ progress, in exchange for a Palestinian commitment to eschew unilateral moves at the United Nations as long as the talks are taking place.

In September, however, there was a “sharp escalation in the number of terror attacks” in the West Bank, according to a report published by the Shin Bet security service a few days ago. After 68 such attacks were reported in August, the figure jumped to 104 in September. Two Israeli soldiers were killed in these incidents: Tomer Hazan, who was murdered by a Palestinian co-worker from the restaurant where he held a part-time job, and Gal Kobi, who was killed by a sniper in Hebron.

Although Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and other senior officers argued that these were isolated incidents that didn’t reflect an organized, deliberate escalation, right-wing ministers began pressuring Netanyahu to respond by freezing the planned prisoner release.

Immediately after the two soldiers were killed, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the Habayit Hayehudi party, sent a letter to Netanyahu cosigned by six other ministers: Uri Ariel and Uri Orbach of his own party, Yisrael Katz of Likud, and Yair Shamir, Uzi Landau and Sofa Landver of Yisrael Beiteinu. The letter asked Netanyahu “to convene the full cabinet urgently to discuss continuation of the policy of releasing prisoners in light of recent developments.”

Another senior government official, who asked to remain anonymous, said that senior American and Palestinian officials have contacted the Prime Minister’s Office in recent days trying to find out what was happening with the prisoner release in light of the pressure right-wing ministers are exerting to halt the process.

A few days ago, Netanyahu’s special envoy for the peace process, Isaac Molho, met with the American envoy to the talks, Martin Indyk, and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. At this meeting, Molho told them on Netanyahu’s behalf that Israel would honor its commitment to release the second group of around 25 prisoners on October 29 as planned. The first group of 26 prisoners was released in August.

Yet despite his promise to release the prisoners on schedule, Netanyahu lashed out at the PA during Sunday’s cabinet meeting. He was speaking the day after a 9-year-old girl from the settlement of Psagot, Noam Glick, was shot in the chest, apparently by a Palestinian, while standing on her balcony.

“We discern an increase in terrorist attacks recently, and I must say that as long as the incitement continues in the official Palestinian media, the Palestinian Authority cannot avoid responsibility for these events,” Netanyahu said. “I will add that it will not help the inciters and murderers – we are here and we will remain here.”

Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuCredit: Reuters

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