Israel to free 26 Palestinians
JERUSALEM — Israel decided on Sunday to free 26 Palestinian prisoners over the next few days before a new round of peace talks, in the first group of a total of more than 100 inmates it pledged to release as part of a U.S.-brokered resumption of negotiations.
Three senior members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet and a panel of security officials agreed to the list of names, which they said would be published early Monday.
The panel headed by Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon “approved the release of 26 prisoners,” a statement from Netanyahu's office said. Fourteen would be deported or moved to the Gaza Strip and 12 repatriated to the occupied West Bank, it said.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had demanded the release of these men, held since before an interim peace deal in 1993, as a condition for renewing talks with Israel, which had run aground in 2010 in a dispute over Jewish settlement building.
Israel agreed in principle last month to free 104 prisoners in four stages, depending on the progress of U.S.-brokered talks for Palestinian statehood that resumed on July 30 as a result of Secretary of State John Kerry's intensive shuttle diplomacy.
Far-right members of Netanyahu's cabinet had opposed the release of prisoners with “blood on their hands.” Many of those expected to go free were convicted of involvement of lethal attacks in which Israelis were killed.
The cabinet decision on Sunday said the inmates would not be freed for at least 48 hours to provide time for victims' families picketing government offices, to appeal to Israel's high court. The court rarely intervenes in such cases.
Softening the blow of the prisoner release for far-right members of Netanyahu's government, Israel also moved forward on Sunday with plans to build nearly 1,200 homes for Jewish settlers.
While condemning settlement expansion, Palestinians have stopped short of threatening outright to abandon the negotiations, which are due to go into a second round in Jerusalem on Wednesday after a session in Washington.
The Housing Ministry said on its website that tenders were issued for building 793 apartments in areas of the West Bank that Israel annexed after capturing the territory.