Palestinians ready for prisoners' release, U.S. concerned over Israel's expansion of settlements
The Palestinian authorities finalized the preparations Monday for the release of 26 Palestinian prisoners, which is seen as a conciliatory gesture from the Israeli side amid efforts to resume direct peace talks.
The release came at a juncture when Israel had just unveiled a decision to build 1,200 housing units in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, a move that had largely outraged the Palestinians.
Officials said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will head the reception ceremony Tuesday night at the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) headquarters, where senior PNA officials and the prisoners' families will also be present.
At the end of the ceremony, 15 prisoners will be brought to their homes in Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and 11 others will stay in the West Bank.
The delivery of the prisoners was part of a deal to free 104 prisoners arrested before signing Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians in 1993.
The Palestinians agreed to resume the peace talks sponsored by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry after Israel pledged to gradually free 104 prisoners from its jails during the nine-month period to finalize the peace negotiations between the two sides. There are around 4,500 Palestinians kept in Israeli jails.
Qadoura Fares, chairman of the Palestinian Prisoner Club Association, told Xinhua that the Palestinians "refuse the deportation or the expelling of any prisoner out of the Palestinian territories.
"All of them should go home," he said.
Of the prisoners to be released, 17 were sentenced to life imprisonment while nine others to 20 to 25 years imprisonment, and 19 had spent more than 19 years in Israeli jails, Abdul Nasser Ferwana, a Palestinian expert in prisoners' affairs, told Xinhua.
Despite Israel's appeasing gesture, the Palestinians voiced indignation over Israel's bid to expand settlements.
During a meeting on Sunday with U.S special peace envoy to the Middle East Martin Indyk in Ramallah, Abbas said that the issue of settlement building in the West Bank and east Jerusalem "will undermine the principle of the two-state solution and the U.S. efforts to revive the peace process."
In Washington, Marie Harf, spokeswoman of the state department said at a press briefing that the United States had made "serious concerns about this recent announcement known to the government of Israel."
"We do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activities," Harf repeated Washington's long-held position, which is shared by the majority of the international community.
Hailing the release of Palestinian prisoners as a "positive step" forward, she said: "It shows that the government of Israel is investing in success of the Palestinian Authority as a partner for peace."
Harf said Indyk and his deputy Frank Lowenstein are in the region to have a number of meetings to "help facilitate these negotiations."
Israel's new settlement plan also drew criticisms from countries such as Turkey.
The Turkish foreign ministry said in a statement Monday that the plan is "very far from positively contributing to the peace talks."
Ankara welcomed the peace talks as well as the release of Palestinian prisoners as part of the confidence-building measure, said the statement.