JERUSALEM : The Palestinians denied Saturday that a mooted Israeli release of Palestinian prisoners is part of understandings in peace talks under which Israel would be allowed to build more settlements in exchange. The media said this week that Israeli ministers were to meet Sunday to approve the release of a second batch of Palestinian prisoners under the terms of the renewed peace talks. Public radio said that, in tandem with confirming the release, Israeli authorities would announce a new swathe of settler housing to be built in the occupied West Bank or annexed east Jerusalem.
An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said in a text message Thursday that such continued construction was part of “understandings” reached with the Palestinians and the Americans ahead of the renewal of talks. “Israel will continue in the coming months to announce building in the settlement blocs and in Jerusalem,” he wrote. “Both the Americans and the Palestinians were aware in advance of these understandings.” But Yasser Abed Rabbo, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, denied such understandings exist. “Establishing a link between settlements and the freeing of prisoners goes against all the undertakings made,” he told AFP. It would “create a very dangerous situation that we would not accept at any cost.” He added that the United States, which is sponsoring the talks, had actually “promised that it would manage to reduce Israeli settlement activities to a minimum. “If (Palestinian) president Mahmud Abbas had known that Israel intended to make a link between prisoners and the prisoners, he would have never agreed to relaunch negotiations.” Direct peace talks resume in July after a hiatus of nearly three years created by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to extend a moratorium on construction of new settler housing in the occupied West Bank and predominantly Arab east Jerusalem. Maariv daily said Thursday that 26 prisoners would be freed, the same number as in a first tranche in August. Netanyahu said just before the July 30 resumption of talks that he had “agreed to free 104 Palestinians in stages, after the start of negotiations and according to progress”. Maariv said the next handover would take place on Tuesday. In August, Israel approved the construction of more than 2,000 settlement units in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. That came just days before a round of direct bilateral talks, leading the Palestinians to warn the fledgling process was in danger of collapse.