Former PA minister raises questions about prisoner release

If Israel doesn’t follow through with release of all pre-Oslo Palestinian prisoners, including citizens of Israel, ‘we’ll create pressure – and we’ll try to stop these negotiations,’ Palestinian Prisoners’ Club head Qaddura Fares says, adding that after previous releases, he has little hope.

By Marian Houk

Former PA minister raises questions about prisoner release
Prisoners’ relatives participate in a protest in front of Najah National University in the West Bank city of Nablus in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners, December 18, 2012. (photo by: Ahmad Al-Bazz/

“No, I am not satisfied,” Qaddura Fares said crisply, the morning after the Israeli Cabinet voted on Sunday to release 104 Palestinian prisoners, the vote having been delayed for hours so Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu could persuade the unconvinced. “I think there are a lot of reservations about the process, the procedure,” Fares said.

The vote finalized a formal invitation from the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to both Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to come to dinner in Washington the next day for first meetings in what the State Department is calling “direct final-status negotiations.”

Fares himself spent years of his life as a young man in Israeli jails for being part of the Palestinian resistance through his membership in Fatah, and now heads the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club in Ramallah, which gives support to Palestinians arrested and jailed by Israeli forces.

Over the the weekend, he reportedly said in a radio interview that all 104 pre-Oslo prisoners must be included in the deal: “If they don’t free all of them, there will be no negotiations.”

But, Netanyahu indicated on Saturday evening that he was “unwilling to accept the demand to release Palestinian prisoners before the negotiations begin.”

A list of the 104 longest-held Palestinian prisoners, some jailed for 30 years, the others for two decades, was given to Kerry by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and forwarded to Netanyahu. But Netanyahu initially balked, saying he would only release 82, striking off the names of Palestinians who are Israeli citizens or East Jerusalem residents. Kerry waited, and Netanyahu appeared to relent. But he said he would put the matter to a cabinet vote on Sunday.

As those deliberations were underway, a PLO official told Haaretz that if the releases were made conditional, there would be no return to negotiations: “The release of all the prisoners was an agreement between the U.S. and Israel, not between Israel and the Palestinians … Based on this agreement, the Americans received our consent to renew talks.”

After the vote, PLO officials decided within the hour that it was good enough to return to negotiations.

A statement was issued in the name of Chief Palestinian Negotiator Sa’eb Erekat, saying that the Israeli cabinet decision was “an overdue step towards the implementation of the Sharm el-Sheikh Agreement of 1999, whereby Israel committed to release all the pre-Oslo prisoners. We welcome this decision, 14 years later.” The statement added that “the decision includes all pre-Oslo political prisoners [who] remain in Israeli prisons, including Palestinians from Israel.” He vowed to continue working to free all Palestinian political prisoners.

What was important, a PLO official told me, was to get the commitment voted on and approved by Israel – to release the 104 prisoners in four stages [over the nine-month period during which the sides committed to talk]. This, he said, is what Kerry proposed, and the Palestinians accepted.

What enabled the deal, apparently, was a written guarantee received from Washington [in a “letter of assurances” from Kerry] that negotiations will be based on pre-June 4, 1967 lines.

According to the PLO official, the first group of Palestinian long-term prisoners should be released “within days” [they had yet to be released before the meetings in Washington Monday night], probably at the latest by the time of the coming Eid, the post-Ramadan holiday that will start either on 9 or 10 August, and last for three days.

But, Qaddura Fares on Monday asked why the releases should take place in four stages over six to nine months. “Who will decide which prisoners will be released? Who will decide who will be included in the first group? Who will decide when they will be released? It is not clear.”

Fares has had ample experience with previous prisoner releases. “We have little hope,” he said. “We’ll be careful about the implementation of this deal. And if they don’t implement it, we’ll create pressure – and we’ll try to stop these negotiations.”

Earlier prisoner releases have been long dragged-out affairs, with quite a bit of bickering, delays and disappointments.

Another PLO official said Palestinians are now placing their trust in Kerry, who he said is working quite effectively as broker.

Still, it’s not clear at all that the Israeli cabinet has in fact agreed to release the 104 Palestinian prisoners on the Palestinian list. A textual analysis of the record shows no reference to Abbas’s list.

Instead, as Barak Ravid reported in Haaretz, Netanyahu told his cabinet that a ministerial team will determine the identities of the prisoners who will be released “after opening the diplomatic process.” In the same article, Ravid wrote that the “Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) has recommended that some prisoners not be released, while others should be released only to Gaza or be deported.”

Earlier Sunday, Ravid wrote on Twitter that Netanyahu gave assurances that “every decision to release Arab-Israeli prisoners will be brought back for a vote in the cabinet.” This means that no decision to release them has yet been taken. In a subsequent article, Ravid wrote that one Likud minister proposed a compromise in order to shore up support for the plan. “Under the proposal, which was adopted by Netanyahu, any decision to release Israeli Arabs would require a new vote by the full cabinet. Based on the tentative schedule of prisoner releases, such a discussion is likely to take place, if at all, only in another nine months.”

According to a cabinet statement distributed Sunday night: “The State of Israel reserves to itself the right to take all measures against any of the prisoners who will be released should they return to terrorism or violate the terms of their release, in addition to returning them to serve the remainders of their sentences, as will be decided upon by the proper authorities.”

Marian Houk is a journalist covering developments in Israel and Palestine.