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Israel agrees to release Palestinian prisoners

Israel has said it will release a number of Palestinian prisoners after an accord aimed at the resumption of peace talks. While negotiators welcomed the prospect of negotiations, there was criticism from the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli government agreed on Saturday to the release of a limited number of detainees, a long-standing demand of the Palestinian leadership.

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Palestinians Discuss Peace Talk Proposal

"There will be some release of prisoners," Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz told Israel Radio.

"I don't want to give numbers but there will be heavyweight prisoners who have been in jail for tens of years," Steinitz said.

The Palestinian leadership has repeatedly called for Israel to release all those prisoners held in its jails since before 1993, when the two sides signed the Oslo Accords. That interim deal was intended to pave the way for a two-state solution, with an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli rights group B'Tselem claims there are 4,713 Palestinian prisoners in Israel, 169 of whom are in administrative detention which allows them to be held without charge for renewable periods of up to six months.

More work needed

Steinitz said that Israel would not relent on other Palestinian demands, including an approximate return to pre-1967 boundaries in the formation of any future state and an end to Israeli settlement building in East Jerusalem and across the West Bank.

US Secretary of State John Kerry announced on Friday that an accord had been reached to resume peace talks after a stalemate of almost three years. While more diplomatic work was needed before it became final, he said, talks could begin in Washington "within the next week or so."

Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who will be representing the Jewish state at the Washington talks, welcomed the announcement late on Friday night.

"I know that as soon as the negotiations start, they will be complex and not easy," said Livni in a statement on Facebook. "But I am convinced with all my heart that it is the right thing to do for our future, our security, our economy and the values of Israel."

'A cover for settlement expansion'

The office of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hailed the developments, saying negotiations so far had "achieved progress, and will facilitate an agreement on the basis of a resumption of talks."

However, the Islamist movement Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, warned that the resumption of peace talks with Israel was "very dangerous."

"Resuming the talks only serves the occupation and gives it a cover for its settlement expansion," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri.

Talks broke down in 2010 over the issue of settlements, with this remaining one of the biggest stumbling blocks.

"The resumption of the peace process is a vital strategic interest of the state of Israel," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement on Saturday. "It is important on its own to try to bring an end to the conflict between us and the Palestinians, and is important because of the challenges facing us, especially from Iran and Syria," he added.

rc/ipj (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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