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Middle East

Tough choice as Israel plans to free Palestinians

Israel will in the coming months release 104 Palestinian prisoners, who were incarcerated prior to the 1993-1994 Oslo Accords, as part of efforts to resume peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

"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," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said recently.

Netanyahu's Cabinet this week approved the re-opening of diplomatic negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians following a six-hour long deliberation, drawn out in debate over the prisoner release. The resulting vote was 13-7, with two abstentions.

All of the 104 prisoners are serving lengthy terms for terrorist acts.

"This is an incomparably difficult decision," Netanyahu told the Israeli public in an "open letter" he released before the Cabinet meeting. "It is painful for the bereaved families and it is painful for the entire nation and it is also very painful for me. It collides with the incomparably important value of justice."

But at the present time, it was "very important" for the State of Israel to enter into a diplomatic process, he continued.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem July 28, 2013. Netanyahu on Sunday urged divided rightists in his cabinet to approve the release of 104 Arab prisoners in order to restart peace talk with the Palestinians. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun (JERUSALEM - Tags: POLITICS)

Netanyahu has been accused of caving in

Release welcomed in Ramallah

In Ramallah, employees at the Palestinian Prisoners' Society welcomed the news.

"They are soldiers of the PLO; they are soldiers of the national movement," said the society's chairman, Qaddura Fares.

Protesters gather weekly in Palestinians cities such as Ramallah, Nablus and Bethlehem to demand the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. Several segments of the security barrier between Israel and the Palestinian territories are decorated with murals honouring the prisoners, as well as suicide bombers.

In their eyes, the prisoners are heroes and freedom fighters who fought against Israeli occupation predominantly in the first Intifada, an uprising that started in 1987 as a result of spiralling violence and civilian deaths of Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli military, as well as Israeli civilians at the hands of Palestinians.

"They attacked the occupation; they attacked the occupation of the West Bank and to free Palestine," Idrees Tariffi, owner of Tariffi grocery store in Ramallah, told DW. prisoners.

Qaddura has two nephews who will spend the rest of their lives in Israeli jails, short of a future prisoner deal. He says his family home was dismantled and his family is suffering under occupation. There are plenty of reasons to be angry, he says, but the release of the pre-Oslo prisoners is a way to leave the extremism of the past behind for both Israelis and Palestinians who want peace.

"Here we are in a region with a lot of blood unfortunately and if we are looking for a good future we have to stop looking back," he told DW.

Release met with anger by Israelis

According to a recent Smith Research poll sponsored by the Knesset's Land of Israel caucus, 85 percent of Israeli Jews were "strongly opposed" or "against" the release.

Dozens of family members of Israeli terror victims made their anger known outside of Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem this week.

Israelis hold pictures of victims of militant attacks during a protest outside the office of Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, against the release of Arab prisoners as a step to renew stalled peace talks with the Palestinians, July 28, 2013. Netanyahu on Sunday urged divided rightists in his cabinet to approve the release of 104 Arab prisoners in order to restart peace talk with the Palestinians. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun (JERUSALEM - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)

Israelis are furious at the planned deal to release over 100 Palestinian prisoners

"Why are you not ashamed?" they chanted with blaring loud speakers, while holding up pictures of family members who had been killed in terror incidents and placards with red-colored hands indicating bloodshed.

Ayelet Tamam from Netanya held up a poster of her 19-year-old brother-in-law Moshe Tamam, an Israeli soldier who was kidnapped from a bus station near Netanya on his way back from the first Lebanon War in 1984, and subsequently murdered. They found his body five days later.

"You don't even throw a dog like that," Tamam said. "They just threw him in an olive grove."

The four Israeli Arabs convicted of his murder are on the list of 104 prisoners that Israel has agreed to release, according to Tamam. The Cabinet has however reserved a further vote on the release of Israeli Arabs into Israel's own territory.

Tamam said she couldn't sleep and was "terrified" that she would encounter the prisoners, as they came from the same area in which she lives. "We live it every day. It's not something that you can forget; you just live with the pain."

Marc Belzberg, from the organization One Family, which helps terror victims and the families of terror victims, said people felt they were receiving nothing in return for releasing the prisoners "except the chance to have a conversation."

Now it's up to the diplomats

The announcement is a victory for US Secretary of State John Kerry, who has visited the region six times in as many months in a bid to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

The Israeli media has reported significant international pressure on Israel to cede to Palestinian demands for a prisoner release. It does not want to risk further legitimacy or appear at fault for failing to breach the diplomatic impasse, especially in the light of the European Union's recent announcement of its boycott of Israeli goods produced in West Bank settlements.

Ayelet Tamam says releasing the prisoners is a price she would pay if there was a guarantee of peace in exchange. But families on both sides of the security barrier know that's up to the diplomats now.

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