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Middle east

Prisoner release marred by Israeli settlements row

© AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2013-10-30

The release of Palestinian prisoners Wednesday was swiftly followed by an Israeli announcement of more construction in east Jerusalem. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the release "one of the most difficult" decisions he had ever made.

Israel again followed the release of Palestinian prisoners on Wednesday by announcing plans for construction, including settler homes, in east Jerusalem.

Israel has agreed to free 104 prisoners in four groups of 26 as part of the agreement to reopen negotiations with the Palestinians after a five-year gap.

The release of prisoners has sparked tensions within the Israeli coalition government. The Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, called the decision "one of the most difficult" he had ever made.

On Wednesday morning came the announcement of the four building projects. Lital Apter, an Interior Ministry spokeswoman, said they include the revival of a plan for 1,500 housing units in Ramat Shlomo, a settlement in an area of the occupied West Bank that Israel considers part of Jerusalem, and the development of an archaeology and tourism site near Jerusalem's Old City.

The sequence of events was almost a mirror image of the first prisoner release on August 13, when Israel announced the construction of more than 2,000 new settler homes, most of them in east Jerusalem. It is argued by some Middle Eastern observers that the settler homes announcement was timely and an effort by the Israeli government to placate a public furious at the prisoner release.

Peace and settler homes?

The Palestinians had refused to resume peace negotiations with Israel unless it ended construction. Israel insisted that the question of settlements should be resolved by negotiations. Earlier this year, John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, persuaded the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, to drop the settlement issue as a condition for restarting negotiations. In exchange, Israel agreed to the prisoner release.

Last week, an unnamed Israeli official told AFP that an announcement on new construction had been coordinated in advance with the Palestinians and the Americans.
On Wednesday, Abbas denied that he had agreed to construction in exchange for prisoners.

Later on Wednesday, Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for President Abbas condemned the construction announcement, saying “it is destructive to the peace efforts and will only lead to more tensions.''

The talks, the first since 2008, are taking place in strict secrecy.

'Hardline Israeli position'

An unnamed senior Palestinian official told AFP on Tuesday that Israel had adopted hard-line positions and negotiations had so far produced "no tangible progress"

Thousands of Palestinians have been held in Israeli prisons since Israel's capture of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem in the 1967 war. The fate of the prisoners is a deeply emotional issue in Palestinian society. Some 5,000 Palestinians are imprisoned and their release has been a longstanding demand.

Shortly after midnight, the prisoners left Ofer prison in the West Bank in two minibuses with blacked-out windows. Outside the prison, dozens of Israelis protested against the release. One held a sign with the photographs of some of the Israelis they killed.

"The victims of terror are turning they graves," one placard read.

Five of the prisoners were driven to Gaza, the other 21 went to the West Bank. On the West Bank, thousands of people turned out, cheering, waving flags and holding phones aloft, to welcome the prisoners at a ceremony at Abbas's presidential compound in Ramallah.

“Our heroes are coming home, long live the prisoners,” the crowd chanted.

No peace with prisoners?

"There will be no agreement if so much as one Palestinian prisoner remains behind bars," Abbas told the excited crowd.

"The settlements are void, void, void," Abbas declared.

Back in Israel, Danny Danon, a hawkish minister from Netanyahu's Likud party condemned the prisoner release in an interview with Israel Radio.

“It is tough to see terrorists celebrate when their place is either under the ground or in jail,” Danon said, adding that the release sends the wrong message to young Palestinians.

Critics, including dovish members of his coalition, said Netanyahu could have avoided the release if he had accepted Palestinian calls to stop construction of West Bank settlements or had agreed accept Israel's pre-1967 borders as the base for negotiations over a Palestinian state.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

Date created : 2013-10-30

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