JERUSALEM -- Amid political and public debate, Israel approved the latest list of Palestinian prisoners it plans to release from jail this week, the government said Saturday night. It would be the third such group released in recent months.
As part of the peace talks renewed through American efforts in July, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's government has agreed to release 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners as the negotiations advance.
The latest list, containing the names of 26 Palestinians serving long-term jail sentences for killing Israelis and other violent attacks carried out between 1985 and the 1993 Oslo accords, was published on the Israel Prison Service website [link in Hebrew]. The publication allows a 48-hour window for legal petitions against the release, which is scheduled for Monday night or Tuesday morning.
Typically, Israel's Supreme Court rejects petitions against government decisions to release prisoners.
Like the previous two releases, the current move is surrounded by heated controversy, as bereaved families protest releasing their relatives' killers and right-wing politicians criticize the policy.
A group of victims' relatives, seeking to have the decision reversed, have been camped outside Netanyahu's official residence in Jerusalem since Wednesday.
Among the prisoners to be released are Salah Halil Ibrahim and Muamar Atta Mahmoud, arrested in 1992 for killing Menahem Stern, a Jerusalem professor, while he was walking to work at the Hebrew University campus of Givat Ram in 1989.
Also being released is Adnan al-Afandi, who is serving a 30-year sentence for attempted murder. After stabbing and injuring two Israeli teenagers in downtown Jerusalem in 1992, an angry crowd set on Afandi and his life was saved by a Jewish woman, Bella Freund, who says he should stay in prison.
In an attempt to ease the controversy over the prisoner releases and to appease increasingly restive hawks in his ruling coalition, Netanyahu coupled the releases so far with announcements of plans for large-scale construction in Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
These announcements have provoked international condemnation and fierce criticism from Palestinians, and have threatened to collapse the talks altogether on several occasions.
Israeli media reported that Netanyahu has turned down requests from the United States and the European Union to refrain from following the third release of prisoners with settlement announcements.
The European Union envoy to Israel, Lars Faaborg-Andersen, has cautioned Israeli officials that such an announcement could severely damage the talks. In an interview with Israeli media, the diplomat warned Israel would bear the blame for scuttling the talks.
Another diplomat expected to weigh in is U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, scheduled to arrive for talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah on Thursday, his third visit this month and 12th so far.
In recent weeks, the U.S. has stepped up its involvement in the talks. Reportedly, Kerry intends to present both sides with a proposed framework agreement sometime in late January.
Meanwhile, retired Gen. John Allen, Kerry’s envoy on related security issues, has drafted a proposal for security arrangements. The Palestinians criticized the American plan, which reportedly provides for a long-term Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley area of the West Bank, as a violation of their sovereignty and a clear favoring of Israeli positions.
Further complicating matters, lawmakers from Netanyahu's Likud party are promoting a proposal to annex the Jordan Valley.