A Palestinian-American man sentenced to life in prison and forced labor for selling land plots in East Jerusalem to Jews was released on Thursday, and is expected to leave the West Bank in the upcoming days. His release, following American pressure, was first reported by Israel's public broadcaster Kan.
55-year-old Issam Akel, who formerly worked as a clerk at a Palestinian hospital in Jerusalem, was arrested in October during a visit to Ramallah, at a time of heightened contention among Palestinians over the issue of land sales to Jews, intensifying tensions between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
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PA officials were suspected with involvement in selling the Old City house to Ateret Kohanim, a non-profit organization run by Jewish settlers. It was originally owned by the Palestinian Joudeh family, one of two families entrusted with the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Numerous Palestinian sources say Akel's arrest was meant to clear the PA's name, after several officials were reportedly embroiled in the case. Akel, who holds an Israeli ID card, was indicted for an "attempt to transfer some Palestinian lands to a foreign country," according to a statement released by the Palestinian court system's advocacy center.
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Akel's arrest led to pressure by Israel on the PA to release him, which included the arrest of Adnan Rit, the Palestinian Authority's Jerusalem district governor, as well as other Palestinian officials and Fatah members. The Israeli army and Shin Bet raided Rit's offices, but he was released after a week.
Sources in East Jerusalem say that Rit has extensive influence over the city's Palestinians, more than other PA leaders, and the Israeli authorities attempted to weaken it.