More than 100 Palestinian prisoners released as Israel clears way for peace talks in Washington

Netanyahu's 'tough decision for the good of the country' faces opposition even within his party

Jerusalem

More than a hundred Palestinian prisoners are to be released after Israel’s cabinet voted to authorise the move today, paving the way for the first direct peace talks between the two sides for three years.

The issue of Palestinian prisoners is a controversial one for both sides in the conflict. While most Israelis view them as terrorists, many Palestinians consider them heroes detained unjustly, and securing their freedom has been a longstanding aim.

Following hours of debate today, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, announced that a majority of the cabinet had agreed on the release. At the start of the meeting, Mr Netanyahu said that while the decision to release the prisoners was “very painful,” it would lead to a process that, “will last at least nine months with the aim of examining whether it is possible in this period to achieve an agreement with the Palestinians.”

A total of 104 prisoners will be released. The majority have been behind bars since before the Oslo Peace Accord of 1993, which ultimately collapsed.

Following the announcement of the release, the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, confirmed that negotiators from both sides would meet on Tuesday.

Many in Israel see Mr Netanyahu’s decision to press for the release of the prisoners, most of whom have convictions for murder and organising terror attacks against Israeli civilians, as a step too far. The cabinet meeting itself was delayed for more than an hour after the prime minister meet with senior members of his own Likud party to try and convince them to back his proposals.

Later, Mr Netanyahu said: “This moment is not easy for me. It is not easy for the ministers. It is not easy especially for the families, the bereaved families, whose heart I understand. But there are moments in which tough decisions must be made for the good of the country and this is one of those moments.”

The right-wing members of Mr Netanyahu’s cabinet made no pretence of backing the measure. Speaking before the cabinet meeting, the economy minister and leader of the Jewish Home party, Naftali Bennett, said that his bloc would not vote with Mr Netanyahu. “Terrorists must be killed, not released,” he said. “In every one of my previous positions, I fought against releasing terrorists, and I have no intention of acting any differently when I’m in the cabinet. Let my hand be cut off should I vote in [favour] of releasing terrorists. We support the peace process, but no country in the world would agree to release murderers as a gift.”

Thirteen ministers voted in favour of the prisoner release, seven voted against and two abstained. Tzipi Livni, Israel’s justice minister who is also in charge of negotiations with the Palestinians, said that convicted murderers will only be released, “if the talks are serious”.

Ms Livni is now expected to travel to Washington where she will begin face-to-face talks with the Palestinian chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat. It will be the first time the two sides have met since 2010. The initial meeting will discuss the agenda and timetable for the talks. Mr Erekat today welcomed the Cabinet vote as “a step toward peace.”

Israel has a history of releasing Palestinian prisoners, including those involved in attacks. In 2011, it exchanged some 1,000 Palestinians for a single Israeli soldier held by Gaza militants.

The other issues that are likely to dominate initial discussions are Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and the borders of any eventual Palestinian state. Israeli officials insist on the country being recognised by the Palestinians as a Jewish state.

Groups representing the families of bombing victims slammed the move, and adverts condemning the decision were taken out in some Israeli newspapers. Mr Netanyahu is politically savvy however, and the move may ultimately strength his hand during negotiations. Having made the concession to the Palestinians, it will be difficult for them to walk away from the negotiating table. It will also realistically prevent the Palestinian Authority from seeking further recognition at the United Nations.

The Israeli cabinet also backed a proposal to put any eventual peace deal to the Israeli population in a referendum.

The prisoners: Going free

Abu Na’ame Abrahim Mahmus Samir

The then 26 year-old was convicted in 1986 of blowing up a bus in Jerusalem. Six people were killed when the explosive device he had helped to prepare was detonated. He is serving a life term.

Agbariya Hassan Mohammed

Jailed in 1992, Mohammed was a member of Palestinian Islamic Jihad who infiltrated an Israeli army base before killing three soldiers. He was sentenced to three life terms at the age of 24.

Kamal Awad Ali Ahmad

Currently serving 16 life terms, Ahmad was convicted of torturing and murdering 15 people in the West Bank. He was also convicted of murdering an Israeli soldier. He was jailed in 1993.

Damouni Saad Mahmed Ahmed

Aged 22 in 1990 when he was arrested, Ahmed – a member of Hamas’s military wing in the Gaza Strip, was convicted – along with others, of lynching an Israeli soldier.

Ahmed Mahmed Jameel Shahada

Shahada was sentenced to a 47 year term in 1989 for the rape and murder of a 13 year-old Israeli boy. The boy was killed by being beaten on the head with an Iron bar.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
tv
Sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Voices
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
art
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine