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28 Jul, 2013 09:37

‘Painful decision’: Israeli ministers agree to release 104 Palestinian prisoners

‘Painful decision’: Israeli ministers agree to release 104 Palestinian prisoners

Israeli cabinet has approved the release of 104 Palestinians – a move sponsored by PM Netanyahu ahead of expected resumption of peace talks with the Palestine Authority. Many of the Palestinians to be freed have spent over 20 years behind bars.

Thirteen ministers in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet have authorized the release of the detainees, with seven voting against and two abstentions, said a government official. 

Following the vote, the US State department said that Israel and the Palestine Authority would restart peace talks on Monday evening in Washington - something which had been expected to take place, but not firmly confirmed.

Netanyahu addressed his Facebook followers on Saturday, urging support for his plan to release Palestinians serving long prison terms gradually, including those sentenced for attacking and killing Israelis. “An open letter to the citizens of Israel” was also published on PM’s website.

“From time to time prime ministers are called on to make decisions that go against public opinion — when the matter is important for the country,” Netanyahu wrote, stressing that the decision he made “is painful for the bereaved families, it is painful for the entire nation, and it is also very painful for me.”

"This conclusion will be possible only on condition that the security of Israeli citizens and our vital national interests will be ensured," Israeli PM promised.

Palestinians gather to commemorate Prisoners' Day in Nablus (AFP Photo/Jaafar Ashtiyeh)

No identities of Palestinian prisoners that might be included in the amnesty have been made public.

Netanyahu had secured support on the issue from 10 ministers of his cabinet ahead of the vote, Haaretz reported. 

The release of prisoners is interlinked with the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations which are to start in Washington on Tuesday.

“The goal here is to augment the political dialogue with confidence-building measures,” an unidentified Israeli official told the New York Times.

A Palestinian woman sits at Saraya prison that had been used by Israeli security services to keep Palestinian prisoners during Israel's occupation of Gaza Strip (Reuters/Suhaib Salem)

“This is the biggest achievement we will have had this year,” an anonymous Palestinian official involved in negotiations told the NYT.

Netanyahu will have to use all of the persuasion he’s got to make Israelis believe that what he’s doing is right and serves the common cause. Families of Israelis killed by Palestinians over the last 30 years are not likely to take it lightly.

In their turn, Palestinians consider their compatriots convicted before the 1993, when the Oslo Peace Accords were signed, as political prisoners that should have been released long time ago.

Israel’s dramatic shift comes quite unexpectedly, with experts wondering if this the final effect of pressure from Brussels and Washington which has been mounting to push Israel towards negotiation table.

A Palestinian youth visits prison cells in Gaza City that had been used by Israeli security services to keep Palestinian prisoners during Israel's occupation of Gaza Strip (Reuters/Suhaib Salem)

The Israeli-Palestinian talks have been organized by the US and Secretary of State John Kerry has put great effort into make it happen. For Kerry, in office for six months now, a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations reflects on his performance.

"There is no alternative. It is also difficult for me," Netanyahu told one of the ministers, according to Haaretz. "We must renew the peace process.”

Israel is used to freeing Palestinians from prisons only in exchange for kidnapped soldiers or the return of their bodies. The last great exchange took place in October 2011 during PM Netanyahu’s previous term, when 1,027 Palestinians were exchanged for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was held captive in Gaza for five years.

Young Palestinians hold portraits of Samer Issawi, a Palestinian prisoner who is on a long-term hunger strike, during a rally to ask for his release in the West Bank village of Abu Dis, on the outskirts of Jerusalem. (AFP Photo/Ahmad Gharabli)