Israel prepares to free Palestinian prisoners as part of US peace efforts

A Palestinian relative of Osama Al-Selawai hangs a poster with his picture in the middle, with pictures of Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, left, and former President Yasser Arafat, right, at Al-Selawai's home in the West Bank city of Jenin, Monday, Dec. 30, 2013. Al-Selawai is one of 26 long-serving Palestinian prisoners who were convicted in connection to the killing of Israelis, that Israel announced it will release this week under a U.S.-brokered formula to resume Mideast peace talks. Arabic reads, "Jenin municipality and the Palestinian National Liberation Movement - Fatah (Jenin city), congratulates Jenin son, the free prisoner, Osama Al-Selawai, for his freedom from the shackles of occupation." (AP Photo/Mohammed Ballas)

JERUSALEM - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced a public uproar Monday over the impending release of more than two dozen Palestinian prisoners convicted in deadly attacks as part of a U.S.-brokered package to restart Mideast peace talks.

With Netanyahu expected to accompany the releases with plans to build hundreds of new homes in Jewish settlements, the criticism came from some unlikely quarters. Dovish supporters of peace talks said the expected construction would destroy any goodwill created by the prisoner release, while hardline allies criticized Netanyahu for linking the Jewish settlement cause with the release of prisoners convicted in connection with killings, mostly of Israelis.

"Leadership is judged by the ability to implement decisions, difficult as they may be," Netanyahu told members of his Likud Party on Monday. "We were not elected to make easy decisions."

Under a formula drawn up by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Israel agreed last summer to release a total of 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners in order to restart peace talks with the Palestinians.

In exchange, the Palestinians dropped their longstanding demand for Israel to halt construction of homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, areas captured by Israel in 1967 and claimed by the Palestinians for their future state.

The latest release, expected late Monday or early Tuesday, is the third of four planned stages. All 26 of the men have been convicted in deadly attacks, and have spent between 19 and 28 years in prison. They included 18 men from the West Bank, 3 Gazans, and in a concession by Israel, five men from east Jerusalem. Israel considers east Jerusalem to be part of its capital and has previously balked at allowing the Palestinians to negotiate on behalf of prisoners living under what it considers to be Israeli territory.

The coming releases generated excitement throughout Palestinian society, where prisoners held by Israel are revered as heroes and seen as freedom fighters.

The family of Ahmed Shihadeh was busy preparing a welcoming celebration in the Qalandia refugee camp in the West Bank. Shihadeh, 51, has spent nearly 29 years in prison after being convicted in the murder of an alleged collaborator with Israel.

His mother Haseba, 75, said she has "spent my life" visiting her son, but hasn't been able to make the trip for the past two years because she can no longer walk.

"I've visited him in 14 jails. I would leave my kids screaming and go for a visit," she said.

Families of Israeli victims of Palestinian violence have staged days of protests against the releases. A group representing the families appealed to the Supreme Court to block the release. There was no immediate decision, but in the past, the court has allowed such releases to continue.

In an apparent attempt to blunt domestic criticism of such releases, Netanyahu is expected to approve plans to build 1,400 new homes in Jewish settlements in the coming days.

The Palestinians say such construction undermines peace efforts. The U.S. and the European Union have harshly criticized settlement announcements during the current round of negotiations. But Netanyahu indicated he would not back down.

"In these negotiations we are faced with our essential interests, including guaranteeing the settlements in the land of Israel," he said.


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