Israel to free second group of Palestinian prisoners
Published Tuesday 29/10/2013 (updated) 30/10/2013 20:47
A girl from the occupied West Bank waves the national flag as she
and others wait close to the military prison of Ofer for the release of
prisoners on Aug. 13, 2013 (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)
JERUSALEM (AFP) -- Israel on Tuesday was preparing to release 26 long-serving Palestinian prisoners, the second batch of 104 inmates who are to be freed in line with commitments to US-brokered peace talks.
The release, which is due to take place late on Tuesday night, will see 21 prisoners returned to their homes in the West Bank and the remaining five returning home to the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.
All were convicted for killing Israelis, with most of the attacks occurring before the 1993 Oslo Accords, which granted the Palestinian Authority limited self-rule, but failed to bring about an independent state.
Of the 26, all but two prisoners were serving life sentences.
Although Israel is currently engaged in direct peace talks with the Palestinians -- relaunched in late July after a three-year hiatus -- the move has sparked tensions within Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition.
And Israel has pledged to push through a wave of new settlement tenders in tandem with the release, in a move which officials say was coordinated in advance.
"The decision to release the prisoners is one of the most difficult I've had to make," Netanyahu told his right-wing Likud party on Monday in remarks broadcast on public radio.
"It is unjust because these terrorists are being released before completing their sentence. My heart is with the families of the victims."
Netanyahu agreed to release a total of 104 Palestinian prisoners in four stages as part of the latest resumption of talks aimed at resolving the decades-old conflict.
A first group of 26 prisoners were freed on August 13.
"This decision was taken in light of the weight of reality which we are living in," Netanyahu said.
"We are obliged to operate in a complex international arena which forces us to take into account different elements for the good of Israel."
Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz was more blunt, saying: "We can't say yes to the Americans one day, and three months later say no."
The prisoners were bussed to Ofer military prison on Monday, where they spent the night ahead of their release, a spokeswoman for Israel Prisons Service told AFP.
She said the West Bank prisoners would be bussed from Ofer to the Beitunia checkpoint from where they would travel to Ramallah, while a second bus would take the remaining prisoners to the Erez crossing to enter Gaza.
On Monday evening, around 2,000 Israelis rallied outside Ofer prison, among them families of the victims, chanting "Death to terrorists!" and raising placards reading: "Are we crazy? We're releasing murderers."
Media reports suggest Israel is planning to announce the construction of 1,500 new housing units in the coming days, up to two thirds of them in east Jerusalem.
Last week, an Israeli official said new tenders were to be announced in the large settlement blocs and in east Jerusalem "in the coming months" as part of "understandings" reached with both the Palestinians and Washington.
The PA -- who views continued settlement construction as a major obstacle to peace -- flatly denied reaching any such agreement.
In August, Israel announced plans for more than 2,000 new settler homes in tandem with the first prisoner release.
There are currently over 5,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails, including 137 people detained and being held without trial, 12 women and 180 children.
Israeli military forces routinely arrest Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, usually under the pretext of security questioning.
Around 40 percent of Palestinian men living in the occupied territories have been detained by Israel at some point in their lives.
Ma'an staff in Bethlehem contributed to this report