JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel on Monday published the names of 26 Palestinian prisoners, most of them held for deadly attacks, who are to be released this week as part of a U.S.-brokered deal that led to a resumption of Mideast negotiations.
Israelis and Palestinians are to launch talks in Jerusalem on Wednesday, following a preparatory round two weeks ago in Washington. The prisoner release, expected Tuesday, is part of an agreement to restart the talks after a five-year freeze.
The fate of Palestinian prisoners stirs strong emotions on both sides, highlighting the competing narratives of their conflict. The upcoming release is particularly sensitive because many of those to be freed were involved in killing Israelis.
“It’s painful to pay such a heavy price just as a concession for talks,” said Pini Rotenberg, after he learned that one of the killers of his father, Isaac, would be freed. The elder Rotenberg, a Nazi death camp survivor, was 69 and working as a contractor when he was killed with an axe from behind while at a construction site in 1994.
In Gaza’s Bureij refugee camp, Fatima Nashabat, 48, said she was counting the hours until the release of her husband, Mohammed, 52, who has spent the last 23 years in prison.
“Last night, when they said he will be in the first group, our house turned into a big dance floor,” said the mother of four. “We were cheering and singing.”
She refused to talk about what got her husband arrested.
Israeli authorities say Nashabat is serving a 25-year term as an accessory to murder. He was convicted of involvement in the killing of an Israeli reserve soldier, Amnon Pomerantz, who was stoned and firebombed by a mob, burning to death in his car, after he mistakenly entered the camp.
In all, 104 long-held Palestinian prisoners are to be released in four stages during the nine months set aside for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians have spent time in Israeli prisons since Israel’s capture of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem in 1967. They were jailed on charges ranging from throwing stones to membership in outlawed groups and killing civilians.
Most Palestinians view prisoners as heroes, regardless of their acts, arguing they made personal sacrifices in the struggle for independence.
Palestinians argue that the 104 prisoners slated for release carried out their acts at a time of conflict, before Israel and the Palestinians struck their first interim peace agreement in 1994. They say Israel should have released them long ago, as part of previous peace talks.
Many Israelis view those involved in the killings as terrorists for targeting civilians.
Some of the victims’ families planned a protest outside Israel’s Defense Ministry later Monday
“They are terrorists and murderers who will be returning home to a hero’s welcome,” said Gila Molcho, whose brother, Ian Feinberg, was working at a European aid office in Gaza City when he was stabbed to death in 1993.
“They will be celebrating the killers of our brothers and children,” she told Israel TV’s Channel 2.
Israel’s Prison Service posted the 26 names online early Monday to allow two days for possible court appeals. Twenty-one in the group were convicted of killings, while others were involved in attempted murder or kidnapping.
Half the prisoners on the list had no given release date, meaning they were serving full life terms, while others would have been released in a few years without the special deal. Most have already served around 20 years, with the longest-held arrested in 1985.
The first release is to precede a round of negotiations in Jerusalem on Wednesday.
The U.S. envisions an agreement within nine months on the terms of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, including drawing a border, agreeing on security arrangements and deciding the fate of Palestinian refugees.
The Palestinians want a state that would include the territories Israel captured in 1967.
The diplomatic paralysis of the last five years was largely due to disputes over the construction of Israeli settlements in areas the Palestinians want for their future state.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has long insisted he will only resume talks if Israel freezes construction. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected a freeze.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry eventually brokered the resumption of negotiations, and Abbas dropped a settlement freeze as a condition for talks.
In exchange, Kerry won Israeli agreement that it will release the 104 Palestinians.
Barzak reported from Bureij refugee camp, Gaza Strip.