More than a hundred Palestinian prisoners are to be released after Israel’s cabinet voted to authorise the move on Sunday, paving the way for the first direct peace talks between the two sides for three years.
The issue of Palestinian prisoners is a controversial one for both sides in the conflict. While most Israelis view them as terrorists, many Palestinians consider them heroes detained unjustly, and securing their freedom has been a longstanding aim.
Following hours of debate today, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, announced that a majority of the cabinet had agreed on the release. At the start of the meeting, Mr Netanyahu said that while the decision to release the prisoners was “very painful,” it would lead to a process that, “will last at least nine months with the aim of examining whether it is possible in this period to achieve an agreement with the Palestinians.”
A total of 104 prisoners will be released. The majority have been behind bars since before the Oslo Peace Accord of 1993, which ultimately collapsed.
Many in Israel see Mr Netanyahu’s decision to press for the release of the prisoners, most of whom have convictions for murder and organising terror attacks against Israeli civilians, as a step too far. The cabinet meeting itself was delayed for more than an hour after the prime minister meet with senior members of his own Likud party to try and convince them to back his proposals.
Later, Mr Netanyahu said: “This moment is not easy for me. It is not easy for the ministers. It is not easy especially for the families, the bereaved families, whose heart I understand. But there are moments in which tough decisions must be made for the good of the country and this is one of those moments.”
The right-wing members of Mr Netanyahu’s cabinet made no pretence of backing the measure. Speaking before the cabinet meeting, the economy minister and leader of the Jewish Home party, Naftali Bennett, said that his bloc would not vote with Mr Netanyahu. “Terrorists must be killed, not released,” he said. “In every one of my previous positions, I fought against releasing terrorists, and I have no intention of acting any differently when I’m in the cabinet. Let my hand be cut off should I vote in [favour] of releasing terrorists. We support the peace process, but no country in the world would agree to release murderers as a gift.”
Thirteen ministers voted in favour of the prisoner release, seven voted against and two abstained. Tzipi Livni, Israel’s justice minister who is also in charge of negotiations with the Palestinians, said that convicted murderers will only be released, “if the talks are serious”.
Ms Livni is now expected to travel to Washington where she will begin face-to-face talks with the Palestinian chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat. It will be the first time the two sides have met since 2010. The initial meeting will discuss the agenda and timetable for the talks. Mr Erekat today welcomed the Cabinet vote as “a step toward peace.”
Israel has a history of releasing Palestinian prisoners, including those involved in attacks. In 2011, it exchanged some 1,000 Palestinians for a single Israeli soldier held by Gaza militants.
The other issues that are likely to dominate initial discussions are Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and the borders of any eventual Palestinian state. Israeli officials insist on the country being recognised by the Palestinians as a Jewish state.
Groups representing the families of bombing victims slammed the move, and adverts condemning the decision were taken out in some Israeli newspapers. Mr Netanyahu is politically savvy however, and the move may ultimately strength his hand during negotiations. Having made the concession to the Palestinians, it will be difficult for them to walk away from the negotiating table. It will also realistically prevent the Palestinian Authority from seeking further recognition at the United Nations.
The Israeli cabinet also backed a proposal to put any eventual peace deal to the Israeli population in a referendum.
The prisoners: Going free
Abu Na’ame Abrahim Mahmus Samir
The then 26 year-old was convicted in 1986 of blowing up a bus in Jerusalem. Six people were killed when the explosive device he had helped to prepare was detonated. He is serving a life term.
Agbariya Hassan Mohammed
Jailed in 1992, Mohammed was a member of Palestinian Islamic Jihad who infiltrated an Israeli army base before killing three soldiers. He was sentenced to three life terms at the age of 24.
Kamal Awad Ali Ahmad
Currently serving 16 life terms, Ahmad was convicted of torturing and murdering 15 people in the West Bank. He was also convicted of murdering an Israeli soldier. He was jailed in 1993.
Damouni Saad Mahmed Ahmed
Ahmed Mahmed Jameel Shahada
Shahada was sentenced to a 47 year term in 1989 for the rape and murder of a 13 year-old Israeli boy. The boy was killed by being beaten on the head with an Iron bar.