21 Jul 2013

Palestinian prisoners to be released by Israel

5:52 am on 21 July 2013

Israel is planning to release a limited number of Palestinian prisoners as part of an agreement made with US Secretary of State John Kerry to resume peace talks.

International relations minister Yuval Steinitz said the release would involve a number of "heavyweight" prisoners who had been in jail for decades.

After six visits to the region in the past few months, Mr Kerry announced on Friday that initial talks would be held in Washington "in the next week or so".

The BBC reports the minister's remarks are the first details of the deal.

Mr Steinitz told public radio that the release of prisoners would take place in stages.

While the number of detainees to be freed is unclear, the BBC reports a Palestinian official said discussions earlier focused on the release of 350 prisoners over a period of months.

According to B'Tselem, a Israeli human rights group, 4817 Palestinians are held in Israeli prisons.

Mr Steinitz said the Palestinians had committed themselves to "serious negotiations" for a minimum of nine months.

But he made clear that Israel had not accepted Palestinian pre-conditions, including a halt to settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

"There is no chance that we will agree to enter any negotiations that begin with defining territorial borders or concessions by Israel, nor a construction freeze."

Israel and the Palestinians last held direct talks in 2010, which were halted over the issue of settlement-building.

The BBC reports the settlements are considered illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this.