JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel on Sunday announced the names of 26 long-serving Palestinian prisoners it will release this week under a U.S.-brokered formula to resume Mideast peace talks.
All of the prisoners were convicted in connection to the killings of Israelis. The planned release, expected to take place late Monday, has angered many Israelis.
Under heavy pressure from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Israel and the Palestinians resumed peace talks in July. As a precondition, the Palestinians were forced to drop a demand for a halt in Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, captured areas they claim for a future state. In exchange, Israel agreed to release 104 of the longest-serving Palestinian prisoners it holds. This week’s release will be the third of four planned phases.
The Israeli government said the prisoners’ crimes were committed before the beginning of the initial Israeli-Palestinians peace talks in 1993. All have served sentences of between 19 and 28 years.
In the southern Gaza Strip, the family of Rami Barbakh anxiously awaited his return. Barbakh has been imprisoned in Israel for nearly 20 years after being convicted of murdering an Israeli man in 1994.
Dancing in their family home in Khan Younis, Rami’s parents handed out candies to well-wishers and prepared for a large family gathering upon his return. They put up posters of his picture and invited people to celebrate with them.
Meanwhile, Israeli relatives of the victims protested the release.
Meir Indor, head of Almagor, an association of families who have lost loved ones in militant attacks, accused the government of selling out the victims.
“Maybe it will make happy the families of the murderers, but it is a sad day to the victims of terror in Israel,” Indor said. “It is a message to murderers: You can kill a Jew and you can be released. You have the umbrella of Kerry.”
Kerry, who has been mediating the talks, is expected back in the region this week to calm rising tensions. In response to the planned release, Israel has said it formally will approve plans to build some 1,400 settlement homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
The Palestinians have appealed to the U.S. to halt the planned construction. The Palestinians say continued settlement construction on the lands they claim for their future state is a sign of bad faith. Kerry and the European Union also have bitterly criticized settlement construction.
In another move that could upset peace efforts, a committee of Israeli Cabinet ministers approved a bill Sunday that would annex a section of the West Bank near the Jordanian border to Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said Israel must maintain a presence in the area, known as the Jordan Valley, as a security measure. Even so, it appears unlikely the bill, supported by hard-line lawmakers unhappy with peace efforts, will receive parliamentary approval.