Israel has agreed to free some “hard-core” prisoners ahead of a meeting with Palestinian representatives next week in Washington brokered by US secretary of state John Kerry to clear the way for peace talks.
Negotiations between the two sides collapsed in 2008 but Kerry revealed late on Friday that they were prepared to meet to work out the final details to restart the process.
Israel’s intelligence and strategic affairs minister Yuval Steinitz was the first senior official to comment on the move yesterday.
Kerry’s announcement came after last-minute meetings with Palestinian officials at the end of a day in which he shuttled between the Jordanian capital and the West Bank. He did not offer details, saying that the deal is “still in the process of being formalised”.
Speaking to Israel Radio, Steinitz said that as a step toward resuming those talks Israel has agreed to release “hardcore prisoners”, including “those that have been sitting in jail for dozens of years”.
He did not say how many would be freed, adding only that they would be released in phases.
In Israeli parlance, the term “hard-core” refers to prisoners implicated in deadly attacks. Their release has been a long-standing Palestinian demand.
The fate of the prisoners is extremely sensitive in Palestinian society, where after decades of fighting Israel, many families have had a relative imprisoned on charges ranging from stone throwing to deadly assaults such as shooting attacks or bombings of civilians and troops.
The Palestinians mostly view the prisoners as heroes while Israelis tend to see them as terrorists.
Steinitz said that other Palestinian demands – such as a freeze on settlement building and defining the 1967 lines as borders ahead of the negotiations – would not be met.
The basis of the negotiations has been a major impediment to resuming talks. On Thursday evening, the Palestinian leadership balked at dropping a precondition that negotiations on borders between a Palestinian state and Israel would be based on the ceasefire line that held from 1949 until the 1967 war, when Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
Israel has repeatedly rejected preconditions on talks.
Kerry’s announcement suggested the question had been resolved, although he gave no details and said the “best way to give negotiations a chance is to keep them private”.
Final-status negotiations aim to reach a deal on the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including borders, the fate of Palestinian refugees and security arrangements.
Talks ground to a halt five years ago, and previous efforts to revive them have stalled, particularly over Palestinian demands that Israel announce a freeze in construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which they claim as part of a future state along with Gaza. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.
In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said his group rejected Kerry’s US summit, saying Hamas did not recognise West Bank-based Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’s “legitimacy to negotiate” on its behalf.
Palestinian official Ahmed Majdalani said Kerry had assured the Palestinians that Israel would free some 350 prisoners over the coming months. The prisoners would include some 100 men convicted of crimes committed before interim peace accords were signed in 1993.
Majdalani also said Kerry would endorse the 1967 lines as the starting point of negotiations.
Steinitz said yesterday that it was agreed that there would be a timetable of at least nine months for the talks to prevent them collapsing along the way. He also said the Palestinians agreed to refrain from taking action against Israel at the United Nations while the talks proceed.
Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu, who did not meet Kerry during his trip this week, has not spoken publicly about the step toward relaunching talks.
Palestinian officials refused to comment on Steinmitz’s remarks but they said Abbas was privy to all the details.
Abbas, who met Kerry in Ramallah on Friday, said after Kerry’s announcement that “lengthy meetings and conversations have resulted in the Palestinians accepting the resumption of talks.” Abbas added: “Some details still need to be worked out”.