JERUSALEM // Twenty-six Palestinian prisoners were freed by Israel on Tuesday as part of peace talks ahead of the United States 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 Mr Kerry geared up for his 10th visit since March, an anticipated announcement by the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu’s, government of further settlement construction — designed to appease hardliners — looked set again to undermine the talks.
Mr Kerry, expected to arrive on Wednesday, has been pressing the two sides to agree on a framework for a final peace agreement ahead of an agreed April target date for the talks to conclude.
The prisoners were the third batch of 104 detainees that Mr Netanyahu pledged to release in four stages when the peace talks were revived in July. All were jailed before the 1993 Oslo accords, which officially launched the Middle East peace process.
Palestinians hailed the freed prisoners as heroes jailed 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, Mahmoud Abbas, in his presidential compound before laying flowers on the grave of the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.
Mr 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.”
Hamas, which rules Gaza, hailed the prisoner release but reiterated its rejection of the US-brokered peace talks and slammed the notion that freeing prisoners justified Israeli settlement expansion.
“The release of any prisoner is a gain for our people,” said Gaza’s Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniya.
“But we reject negotiating with the occupation (Israel) and we do not accept that settlements should be expanded in exchange for that.”
Mr Netanyahu meanwhile criticised the heroes’ welcome given to the released prisoners, who had served 19 to 28 years for killing Israeli civilians or soldiers.
“While we are prepared to take very painful steps in an effort to try to reach an agreement ... they, along with their highest leadership, are celebrating,” he said. “Murderers are not heroes.”
Tuesday’s release was expected to be accompanied by the announcement of new construction plans for Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, including east Jerusalem, as the previous two prisoner releases were.
Such a move is designed to appease hardliners in Mr Netanyahu’s government but is likely to infuriate the Palestinians and the international community, providing a further challenge for Mr Kerry, whose intense shuttle diplomacy managed to revive the talks after a three-year hiatus.
The pressure on Mr Netanyahu to make such an announcement comes both from within his own coalition government — the housing minister lives in a West Bank settlement and hardliners oppose any peace talks — and from the Israeli public.
Mr Kerry will also have to quell tensions that rose after an Israeli ministerial committee on Sunday gave initial approval to a bill annexing Jordan Valley settlements, a largely symbolic move expected to be shot down by the government.
A poll conducted by Jerusalem’s Hebrew University said on Tuesday that 63 per cent of Israelis and 53 per cent of Palestinians supported a two-state solution.
Around 41 per cent of some 600 Israeli respondents said the Jewish state should “yield” to any US pressure to accept a two-state solution, but 43 per cent were against.
The prisoner release, shortly after 4am, came after an Israeli court rejected a last-minute appeal by victims’ families.
The families had especially protested the release of the five east Jerusalem prisoners, which they said contradicted a commitment made by Mr Netanyahu.
Also on Tuesday, Israeli police said suspected Jewish vandals have set fire to three vehicles in a West Bank village and sprayed threatening graffiti referencing Mr Kerry ahead of his expected visit to the region.
The police spokesman, Micky Rosenfeld, says vandals sprayed Hebrew graffiti saying, “Blood will spill in Judea and Samaria,” the Israeli term for the West Bank, and also, “Regards to Kerry.”
Mr Rosenfeld says the vandals then fled the Palestinian village of Jilazoun. He says police are investigating.
* Agence France-Press