Last updated: 25 March, 2014

Palestinians to lobby UN if prisoners not freed on time

Palestinian leaders threatened Tuesday to renew their diplomatic push at the United Nations if Israel fails to free Arab prisoners as scheduled this weekend.

When US-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace resumed in July, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas agreed that, during their nine-month duration, he would shelve efforts to use the UN’s November 2012 recognition of Palestine as a non-member observer to press for membership in international bodies where it could fight Israeli occupation.

In exchange for that diplomatic ceasefire, Israel was to release 104 Arabs imprisoned since before the 1993 Oslo peace accords between the sides.

It has so far freed 78 with the final batch due for release on March 29.

“We shall turn to the UN’s international organisations if Israel does not release the fourth and final group of prisoners,” said Yasser Abed Rabbo, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s executive committee.

“The release of the prisoners is in return for the freeze on seeking membership in international organisations,” he told official Voice of Palestine radio.

Israel wants the so-far inconclusive peace talks extended beyond their April 29 deadline, and ministers have warned that should the Palestinians refuse, the remaining prisoners will not be freed.

“If Israel were to refuse to free the fourth batch it would have serious consequences, including initiatives at the United Nations,” former Palestinian negotiator Mohammed Shtayeh, said in a statement.

Israel particularly objects to the Palestinians’ demand for Arab Israelis or Palestinian residents of Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem convicted of militant acts to be included in the release, even though both groups were included in a 2011 swap of 1,027 Arab prisoners for captive soldier Gilad Shalit.

A senior Palestinian official told AFP that, in recent talks with US special envoy Martin Indyk, Abbas warned that if the April 29 talks deadline was not met “Israel would be in violation of agreements and (the Palestinians) would have the right to turn to the UN and to take any measures it deems appropriate.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry will meet Abbas in Amman Wednesday, State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said Tuesday

Kerry’s trip aims “to continue to narrow the gaps between the parties”, she said adding that the US diplomatic chief would also be in touch with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “over the phone or by video conference.”

The prisoner issue is not the only bone of contention jeopardising the peace talks.

Repeated Israeli announcements of new settlement construction — condemned by the international community — and the killing of nine Palestinians by Israeli forces in the West Bank since the beginning of the year have enraged the Palestinians.

And Netanyahu’s demand that they recognise Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people” has been rejected by Abbas.

Moreover, the climate of relations between Israel and its US ally has been chilled by remarks last week from Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon saying Washington’s foreign policy showed weakness in global hotspots.