26 Palestinian prisoners freed ahead of Kerry visit

January 01, 2014 - 12:17:21 pm

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ignites a flame celebrating the 49th anniversary of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) with released Palestinian prisoners during their welcome ceremony at the Presidential headquarters in Ramallah, West Bank, yesterday.

JERUSALEM: Israel freed 26 Palestinian prisoners yesterday as part of US-brokered peace talks ahead of 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 Kerry geared up for his 10th visit since March, an anticipated announcement by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government of further settlement construction — designed to appease hardliners — looked set again to undermine the talks.

Kerry, expected to arrive Wednesday, has been pressing the two sides to agree on a framework for a final peace agreement ahead of an agreed late April target date for the talks to conclude.

The prisoners were the third batch of 104 detainees that Netanyahu pledged to release in four stages when the peace talks were revived in July. All were imprisoned before the 1993 Oslo accords, which officially launched the Middle East peace process.

Palestinians hailed the freed prisoners as heroes imprisoned 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 Mahmud Abbas in his presidential compound before laying flowers on the grave of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

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.”

The Islamist Hamas movement ruling Gaza hailed the prisoner release, but reiterated its rejection of the peace talks and slammed the notion that freeing prisoners justified Israeli settlement expansion.

“The release of any prisoner is a gain for our people,” Gaza’s Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyah told a news conference in the besieged Palestinian territory.

“But we reject negotiating with the occupation (Israel) and we do not accept that settlements should be expanded in exchange for that.”

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 and reach an agreement ... they, along with their highest leadership, are celebrating,” he told a conference in the northern Israeli town of Tiberias.AFP

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