JERUSALEM - Israel freed 26 Palestinian prisoners Tuesday as part of US-brokered peace talks ahead of Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest visit to the region.
The release prompted elation among Palestinians, who welcomed the prisoners back into the West Bank and Gaza Strip after they had spent two to three decades in Israeli jails.
But as Kerry geared up for his 10th visit since March, an anticipated announcement by 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 peace agreement 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.
Palestinians hailed the freed prisoners as heroes imprisoned for fighting against the Israeli occupation, with some welcomed back to Ramallah in the West Bank, others to east Jerusalem and the remainder into the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. The 18 men taken to Ramallah were warmly embraced by the Western-backed Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in his presidential compound before laying flowers on the grave of late Palestinian 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.
Suspected Jewish extremists overnight torched three cars belonging to Arabs in the West Bank town of Jalzoun, police said Tuesday, apparently in protest at Israel’s release of 26 Palestinian prisoners. The vandals also spray-painted “blood will flow in Judea and Samaria” - the West Bank - and “this is war” on the wall of a house nearby, just hours after Israel freed the inmates, Israeli police spokeswoman Luba Samri told AFP.
Meanwhile, Israeli forces killed 27 Palestinians in the West Bank in 2013, a human rights watchdog has said, three times the figure recorded last year.
It was also the first time in 10 years more Palestinians were killed in the West Bank than in the Gaza Strip, where Israeli forces killed nine Palestinians in 2013, Israeli human rights group B’Tselem said. Three Israeli security forces personnel were killed - two in the West Bank and one in Gaza, the group added in a statement on Monday.