Israel frees Palestinian prisoners ahead of Kerry visit
Published Tuesday 31/12/2013 (updated) 02/01/2014 22:04
US Secretary of State John Kerry is pictured in Washington Sept. 4.
JERUSALEM (AFP) -- Israel freed 26 Palestinian prisoners Tuesday as part of US-brokered peace talks ahead of the latest visit to the region by Secretary of State John Kerry.
But as Kerry geared up for his 10th visit to the region since March, an anticipated announcement by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government of further settlement construction -- designed to appease hardliners -- looked set again to undermine the talks.
Kerry, expected to arrive Wednesday, has been pressing the two sides to agree on a framework for a final settlement ahead of an agreed late April target date for the talks to conclude.
The prisoners were the third batch of 104 detainees that Netanyahu pledged to release in four stages when the peace talks were revived in July. All were imprisoned before the 1993 Oslo accords, which officially launched the Middle East peace process.
The 18 men taken to Ramallah were warmly embraced by president Mahmoud Abbas in his presidential compound, a correspondent said, before laying flowers on the grave of late leader Yasser Arafat.
Abbas pledged to the prisoners and their exuberant families that "there would be no final agreement (with Israel) until all prisoners were in their homes."
The Hamas movement ruling Gaza hailed the prisoner release, but reiterated its rejection of the peace talks and slammed the notion that freeing prisoners justified Israeli settlement expansion.
"The release of any prisoner is a gain for our people and is a right for the inmates," Gaza prime minister Ismail Haniya told a news conference in the besieged Palestinian territory.
"But we reject negotiating with the occupation (Israel) and we do not accept that settlements should be expanded in exchange for that."
New settlement plans expected
Tuesday's release was expected to be accompanied by announcements of new construction plans for Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as the previous two prisoner releases were.
Such a move is likely to infuriate the PLO and the international community, providing a further challenge for Kerry, whose intense shuttle diplomacy managed to revive the talks after a three-year hiatus.
The pressure on Netanyahu to make such an announcement comes both from within his own coalition government -- the housing minister lives in a West Bank settlement and hardliners oppose any peace talks -- and from the Israeli public.
Kerry will also have to quell tensions that rose after an Israeli ministerial committee on Sunday gave initial approval to a bill annexing Jordan Valley settlements, a largely symbolic move expected to be shot down by the government.