SHERWOOD: Middle East peace talks – prisoner release and new settlement push raises temperature 13Aug13 August 13, 2013

A part of work in Jewish settlement of Harmoun Hanatsave near the Arab neighbourhood of Ras al-Amud

by Harriet Sherwood    -     The Guardian      -    12 August 2013

In highly contentious moves heralding the renewal of Middle East peace talks this week, Israel on Sunday identified 26 long-term Palestinian prisoners to be released on Tuesday after authorising 1,200 new homes to be built in settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The apparently choreographed steps came three days before the first substantive negotiations for five years, aimed at reaching a historic settlement of the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict by next May. The outcome of intense shuttle diplomacy by US secretary of state John Kerry, the talks will resume amid widespread scepticism on both sides.

The list of names was published late on Sunday night to allow time for last-minute legal challenges from the families of victims. The group is among a total of 104 prisoners whose crimes date back more than 20 years who will be freed in stages over the next nine months. Those convicted of the most serious crimes are expected to be the last to be released.

A statement from the office of Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, said, of the 26 initially released, 14 would be deported or moved to the Gaza Strip and 12 repatriated to the occupied West Bank. All were convicted of murder or being an accessory to murder; one has been in prison for 28 years.

For most Israelis, the prisoner release is a controversial and painful price for the renewal of the peace process. Victims’ relatives and their supporters have protested against the move over recent weeks and told of their anguish and opposition in interviews and articles in the Israel media.

But the issue is of visceral importance to Palestinians. Emotional family reunions will take place across the West Bank and Gaza, where the freed men will be feted as heroes. Their release is likely to result – at least temporarily – in a more favourable atmosphere towards the talks on the Palestinian side, a key reason why Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas insisted on the move before returning to the negotiating table.

The announcement of a new settlement construction push, made by the ultra-rightwing housing minister, Uri Ariel, appeared to a be a quid pro quo for the release. The move was reportedly co-ordinated with US officials as part of the pre-talks framework. “The Americans agreed to resign themselves to moderate construction in exchange for a prisoner release,” the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv reported.

Eight hundred of the new homes will be built in colonies across the pre-1967 Green Line in Jerusalem – the part of the city the Palestinians want as the capital of their future state. Construction could take two years. All settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem are illegal under international law.

“No country receives orders about where it can and cannot build from other countries,” said Ariel, a former head of the settlers’ council, Yesha, But in an indication of bitter divisions within the Israeli cabinet, finance minister Yair Lapid described the move as a “big mistake” and said it was “not conducive for the peace process”.

Palestinian leaders warned that continued settlement expansion could scupper the talks. Negotiator Mohammad Shtayyeh said it was “clear that the Israeli government is deliberately attempting to sabotage US and international efforts to resume negotiations by approving more settlement units three days before the first Palestinian-Israeli meeting”. He added: “Israel continues to use peace negotiations as a smokescreen for more settlement construction.”

The settlement announcement came hours before a special ministerial committee convened to approve the names of the first 26 prisoners to be released, from a list submitted by the security agency Shin Bet. The committee was due to be chaired by Netanyahu, who was instead recovering from overnight emergency surgery to repair a hernia. He left hospital early on Sunday evening.

A small group of Israelis, members of whose families were killed in attacks more than two decades ago, protested in Jerusalem at the release, some smeared with red paint to symbolise blood on the prisoners’ hands.

“For 23 years I haven’t been able to sleep trying to recreate what happened to my son in those moments,” Yaakov Tobel, whose son Lior was killed in 1990, told the news site Ynet. “The investigators told us he managed to run for 80 metres before his blood flow stopped. Let the ministers think about that before they sign off [on the release].”

Ron Kerman, whose 17-year-old daughter, Tal, was killed in a bus bombing in Haifa in 2003, said: “The government promised not to enter into negotiations with preconditions, but they gave in and did so with the toughest precondition of all – freeing traitor terrorists. We’ve never sunk this low.”

The peace talks will open in West Jerusalem on Wednesday and later move to the desert city of Jericho in the West Bank. The interlinked issues of borders, territory and settlements are the priority for Palestinian negotiators, who insist that the pre-1967 Green Line should be the basis of their future state. The US shares this position but Israel refused to sign up to it in pre-talks discussions.

Israel will be represented by justice minister Tzipi Livni and prime ministerial aide Isaac Molcho; the Palestinians will field veteran negotiator Saeb Erekat and Shtayyeh. Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, and Frank Lowenstein, Kerry’s foreign policy adviser, are the secretary of state’s envoys.

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