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13 Aug, 2013 14:28

‘Unprecedented’ Israeli settlement expansion could sink Palestinian peace talks

‘Unprecedented’ Israeli settlement expansion could sink Palestinian peace talks

Israel has released 26 Palestinian prisoners on the eve of renewed Middle East peace negotiations. But Israel’s earlier announcement of new settlements for the West Bank and east Jerusalem challenges the outcome of the US-backed talks.

Israel released 26 Palestinian prisoners Tuesday night, as a sign of good will. Eleven men were transported to the West Bank and 15 to Gaza. The buses bound for the Palestinian territories were greeted by thousands of supporters.

Celebrations in honor of the prisoners exploded in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where crowds gathered to greet their heroes. Fireworks erupted in Gaza, where both Hamas and Fatah supporters, danced and drummed the night away.

Ramallah too became a huge scene for celebration where the released prisoners were greeted by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the presidential compound.  The men also laid a wreath at the resting place of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

Palestinians prisoners released by Israel are greeted by relatives at the Palestinian President's headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, August 14, 2013. (AFP Photo / Ahmad Gharabli)

Abbas addressed the crowds and congratulated the prisoners saying that he will "not rest until they are all released." There are about 4,500 Palestinians in Israeli jails, of which Israel promised to release 104 people. "You are just the beginning and the rest will come," Abbas said.

Palestinian prisoners freed from Israeli detention are greeted in the city of Ramallah on August 14, 2013. (AFP Photo / Abbas Momani)

In other key developments US Secretary of State John Kerry, one of the architect of the negotiations, said he had “frank and open” discussions over the phone about settlements with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

US chief diplomat urged Israel not to make settlements announcements while diplomatic process is underway but he doesn't think they threaten the second round of talks scheduled for Wednesday in Jerusalem.

Speaking at a press conference in Brazil, Kerry also said that Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas “is committed to continuing to come to the negotiation because he believes that negotiation is what will resolve this issue."

"Let me make it clear. The policy of the United States with respect to all settlements, is that they are illegitimate,"
Kerry said, adding that “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was completely up front with me and with president Abbas that he would be announcing some additional (settlement) building in places that will not affect the peace map, that will not have any impact on the capacity to have a peace agreement," the US chief diplomat said.

Earlier, a senior Palestinian authority member cautioned the Israeli plans for more housing units on Palestinian claimed land, warning that talks could collapse.

“Settlement expansion goes against the US administration's pledges and threatens to cause the negotiations' collapse,” Yasser Abed Rabbo told AFP. 

Laborers work at the construction site of a new housing project at the Jewish settlement of Gilo in Israeli annexed Arab east Jerusalem on August 12, 2013. (AFP Photo / Menahem Kahana)

Abed Rabbo’s comment comes shortly after Israel’s approval of over 2,000 new settlement units on land claimed by the Palestinians as part of their future state. 

Earlier in the week, the Israeli government backed the construction of nearly 1,200 new apartments for Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. On Tuesday - just a day before the scheduled new round of face-to-face talks between Israelis and Palestinians – Jerusalem’s municipality approved the construction of 942 other settlement units on the lands occupied by Israelis since the 1967 Six-Day War.

“This settlement expansion is unprecedented,” Abed Rabbo stated, adding that “it threatens to make talks fail even before they've started.”

Another Palestinian official familiar with the negotiations labeled the decision to approve “such a massive number of housing units” days before the planned gathering “as sick’’. The unnamed source, who spoke earlier with The Christian Science Monitor, added that the Palestinians “may not come” to the talks.

Three years ago, it was the dispute over the settlement building in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem that derailed the last round of direct Israeli-Palestinian talks.

As key preconditions for the resumption of the face-to-face talks, the Palestinian leadership had demanded a halt to the settlement program and, also, the release of hundreds of inmates, many of whom have been in Israeli jails since before the 1993 Oslo Peace accords.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the full freeze. But after months of pressure from US diplomacy, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas agreed to drop this as a condition for the resumption of peace talks, while Israel agreed to release 104 Palestinian prisoners serving long sentences.

Protesters hold placards during a demonstration calling for the release of Israeli prisoners in response to Israel's expected release of Palestinian prisoners, outside the Ayalon prison in the city of Ramle near Tel Aviv August 13, 2013.(Reuters / Amir Cohen)

The decision to free the prisoners is unpopular in the country, as many of them are considered terrorists in Israel. The announcement was followed by two days of protests by victims’ relatives outside the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv. According to Haaretz, 21 in the group were convicted of killing Israelis or collaborating with Palestinian militants, while others were involved in attempted murder or kidnapping.   

In their homeland, by contrast, the convicts are seen as heroes and their release scores political points to Abbas. However, the Palestinian leadership is reportedly not completely satisfied with the decision.  

Abbas and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat were particularly angered by reports in the Israeli media that because of their perceived security risk, some of the prisoners released in the next three phases will be deported to the Gaza Strip or abroad and not allowed to return to their homes in the West Bank, Haaretz writes. The paper, citing senior Israeli and Palestinian officials, writes that the Palestinian leadership told the US they would not agree to the deportation.

The direct Israeli-Palestinian talks are expected to start on Wednesday, with Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni meeting Palestinian Erekat in Jerusalem's King David Hotel. The talks will be moderated by US envoy Martin Indyk.