Israel releases 26 Palestinian prisoners on eve of peace talks after approving new settler homes in east Jerusalem
Israel approved nearly 1,000 new settlers' homes in occupied east Jerusalem on the eve of renewed peace talks, drawing accusations that it was sabotaging the chances of a historic agreement with the Palestinians, as the scheduled release of 26 Palestinian prisoners took place as planned.
The plan for 942 houses in the settlement of Gilo provoked condemnation from the Palestinians, who said it threatened to torpedo the talks before they began. Discussions were held "at the highest level" of the Palestinian leadership about whether to attend the negotiation session, one official said, although he predicted it would go ahead.
"This is not negotiation. It's an exercise in humiliation," the official said. "It's clear Israel has no interest in ending the occupation. They're doing everything possible to keep us away from the negotiating table." Hagit Ofran, who monitors settlements for Peace Now, an Israeli campaign group, said: "Benjamin Netanyahu [Israel's prime minister] might say that this is because he is releasing prisoners and he needs to show the Right wing he is OK, but really it's a slap in the face for the Palestinians.
He's virtually telling them, 'I don't want to talk to you'. It's very dramatic and consequences for the peace process could be very hard."
Buses carrying the inmates, the first of four planned mass releases, departed the Ayalon prison in central Israel late on Tuesday, a night-time release that was aimed at preventing the spectacle of prisoners flashing victory signs as has happened in the past. Relatives of the victims, many with their hands painted red to symbolise what they say is the blood on the hands of the inmates, held protests throughout the day, and some protesters tried briefly to block the buses from leaving.
Israel says most of those being released are murderers who carried out "terrorist" offences. Fifteen of the 26 are from the Gaza Strip, with the remainder from the West Bank.
The release, approved by a cabinet committee on Sunday, cleared its final legal obstacle yesterday when Israel's high court rejected an application from relations of those killed in the conflict to keep the convicted men behind bars.
There was a festive atmosphere among a large crowd that gathered outside the Muqatah in Ramallah – headquarters of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president – to greet the 11 prisoners from the West Bank.
Among those present was the family of Mohammad and Hosni Sawalha, two cousins from Azmut, near Nablus, who were given life sentences for an attack on a bus in December 1992 in which one Israeli was killed and several others wounded.
As his relatives danced the dabkeh, a traditional Palestinian dance, Husam Sawalha, 38, said Israel's confiscation of land to build the Jewish settlement of Alon Moreh had motivated his older brother Hosni to carry out the attack.
Asked to justify an attack on Israeli civilians, he replied: "Palestinian people are civilians and the Israelis kill them every day. My brother spent 20 years in jail. We didn't see him at all for the first 10 years and they allowed us to see him just once a year for the next five. They destroyed our house and we were forced to live in tents for three years, so the family also suffered a lot."
Referring to the renewed peace talks, he added: "This [prisoner release] is only a political agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. I don't think the negotiations will end anywhere."
The released prisoners laid a wreath at the grave of late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and were greeted by Mr Abbas personally at the presidential compound.
Mr Abbas, addressing the crowd from a raised podium with freed prisoners behind him, said the newly liberated men were the first of a mass of Palestinian inmates who would be released in future.
He added: “ The rest of the prisoners will be released. They [the freed prisoners] are just the front-line and others will follow. them. We tell our brothers and their families and the prisoners that we will not abandon them in prison and will make sure that all of them will be out soon.”
As he was mobbed by the cheering throngs, one prisoner, Taher Zayoud, from Jenin, said: “I salute the great Palestinian people who stayed with us.
They are the ones who secured our freedom and supported our cause.”
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, said he had "frank and open" talks on the matter with Mr Netanyahu. At a press conference in Brazil, Mr Kerry reiterated that the US viewed the settlements as "illegitimate".
He also insisted that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, was "committed" to the peace talks.
The criticisms were rebutted by Mark Regev, Mr Netanyahu's spokesman, who said Israel had never agreed to freeze settlement building to restart talks.
"All the construction approved in recent days has been in Jerusalem and the large blocks, areas that in any possible final status agreement will remain part of Israel," he said. "It in no way changes the map of peace." It was Israel's second announcement in two days of major expansion of settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories seen by the Palestinians as part of a future state.
On Sunday, Uriel Ariel, the housing minister, said tenders would be issued for nearly 1,200 homes in seven settlements, including another 400 in Gilo.
The latest announcement came as Mr Kerry, who has persuaded both sides to resume long-stalled talks, admitted that recent settlement developments had breached a private understanding with Israel and he has appealed to the Palestinians "not to react adversely".
"The announcements with respect to settlements were to some degree expected because we have known that there was going to be a continuation of some building in certain places, and I think the Palestinians understand that," he told journalists in Bogota, the Colombian capital. "[But] I think one of the announcements was outside of that expectation and that's being discussed right now." Mr Abbas had initially resisted pressure to resume negotiations unless Israel agreed to freeze settlement building.
Israeli officials insist an understanding has been reached allowing continued building in large settlements for the nine-month duration of the reconvened talks in exchange for releasing 104 long-term Palestinian prisoners, one of Mr Abbas's other key demands.
The first round of substantive peace talks are due to begin in Jerusalem today, led by Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiators for Israel and Palestine.