A fourth and final set of Palestinian prisoners held in Israel were scheduled to be released on Saturday (29.03.2014) as part of the deal negotiated last August that restarted US-led peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.
The release, however, was placed on hold in fear Palestinian negotiators would walk out on peace talks after the prisoners were released. The Israeli government and US Secretary of State John Kerry have been trying to keep the Palestinians at the table with an offer to release an additional 400 prisoners, with Israel deciding which prisoners to release.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his negotiators on Sunday rejected Israel's offer to release 400 Palestinian prisoners and put forward an offer of their own - the release of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners that they choose, the freezing of settlement construction and returning some of Area C to Palestinian control in return for extending the talks until the end of 2014.
A spokesman from the Palestinian Liberation Organization told DW that Israel and Kerry made the offer to free 400 prisoners to Abbas on the condition that the Palestinian Authority agrees to extend the timeline for peace negotiations beyond the current deadline of April 29 and does not take unilateral action seeking statehood at the United Nations.
"The Palestinian leadership says Israel has not honored its end of the bargain to release 26 prisoners," the spokesman said, adding that despite Israeli statements to the contrary that he expects the prisoners to be released in the coming week.
"Whether the talks will continue is unclear as the leadership is rejecting Israel's bargaining tools," he added.
The release of the 26 prisoners was part of the original understanding between Jerusalem and Ramallah when peace negotiations were reignited by Kerry in August. After eight months, the talks faced their greatest challenge with Israel missing the deadline for the prisoners release as Kerry has also stalled to draw up a framework for continuing the talks.
Palestinian Minister of Prisoner Affairs Issa Qaraqe told DW that the Palestinian Authority was waiting for Israel and the United States to finish their talks on the final stage of the prisoner release.
"We will wait to see what Israel decides, but we are not being cornered," he said. "It's unreasonable that Israel refused to release the 26 final prisoners."
Qaraqe added that he would hold Israel responsible for any anger in Palestinian streets that could potentially erupt if prisoners were not released this week.
"The Palestinian Authority will have no choice but to officially join international organizations, conventions and treaties particularly the Geneva Convention in protest," he said.
Netanyahu: Israel wants something in return
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu skirted the issue on Sunday when he spoke to media prior to a cabinet meeting saying Israel would not release any additional Palestinian prisoners "without receiving something of value in return."
He told media the prisoner issue would be resolved in a matter of days and that it will then "either be closed, or it will blow up." Netanyahu added that, "There won't be any deal without receiving something of clear value."
As the March 29 deadline for the prisoners' release approached, Palestinians had threatened to walk out of peace talks if Israel kept the prisoners in custody. Several of the prisoners were convicted of terrorist crimes against Israelis.
Kerry and US negotiators tried to prevent Palestinians leaving the negotiations by securing an commitment from Israel to carry out the release or to come up with a new compromise that would allow the extension of peace talks.
When negotiations were reignited last year, the Palestinian Authority agreed to shelve plans to seek statehood recognition through at the United Nations if Israel agreed to release 104 prisoners who were imprisoned before the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. Israeli has so far released 78 prisoners in three groups.
The most controversial prisoners
The fourth set of Palestinian prisoner releases was the most controversial among the Israeli public and protest actions across Israel have been widespread in recent weeks. Those convicted of the worst crimes were to be released last.
There has also been heavy opposition to the move within Netanyahu's right-leaning political coalition with Israeli cabinet members threatening to block the final prisoner release if Palestinians refuse to extend peace talks beyond the current April 29 deadline.
Jewish Home party members of Netanyahu's coalition have also said they would leave the government if an additional 400 prisoners were to be released.
A member of the Almagor Terror Victims Association, Lizi Hameiri, 38, said victims of some of the prisoners who have either already been released or are set to be released have been shocked by a proposal for another 400 prisoners to be released.
"The pain and shock we experienced yesterday was unbearable, we felt the government was spitting in our faces and that our struggle to stop prisoner releases for nine months has meant nothing to them.
"We don't understand Netanyahu - it's insane - did he loose his mind? This is really maltreating bereaved families," she said.
A new deadline
It is expected the talks will be extended for several months if the latest hurdle is overcome. Kerry scaled back his deadline recently and it set to issue a detailed outline to be filled in with further talks. The framework agreement is on hold over Israel wanting the Palestinians to agree to recognize Israeli as a Jewish state alongside their own future Palestinian one.
Kerry spoke to Netanyahu last Thursday and again on Friday. Kerry met with Abbas in Amman, Jordan last Wednesday.