Israeli Prisoner Release Steps Toward Peace And Draws Controversy

Israel is preparing a prisoner release as part of the peace process with Palestinians. Arab citizens of Israel are set to be let go, a move more controversial than releasing non-citizen Palestinians.

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Israel is set to release about 30 Palestinian prisoners this weekend as part of ongoing peace talks. If it happens it'll be the fourth such release. But this latest group is especially controversial. It includes Palestinians who are Israeli citizens. That is they're part of the Arab minority within Israel, not from the Palestinian territories. They were jailed for violent crimes against Israelis committed in the name of the Palestinian cause. But if they're released, they'll go to homes inside Israel. And as NPR's Emily Harris reports, they'll have freedom to move around the country.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Eighty-year-old Subhiyah Younis has been waiting more than three decades for her son, Kareem, to get out of prison. Subhiyah says the possibility of Kareem's freedom did come up in past political deals between Israeli and Palestinian officials.

SUBHIYAH YOUNIS: (Through translator) I've heard it before but this time it sounds real. President Abbas has already said he congratulates the prisoners who will be released, and he mentioned Kareem by name. He said: I hope to congratulate him in his own home.

HARRIS: But to congratulate Kareem in his family home, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would have to leave the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and travel a few miles to an Arab town in northern Israel. Kareem and his mother are Palestinian Arabs and Israeli citizens. But she says he is treated differently from Jewish Israeli prisoners, even those behind bars for similar crimes.

Look at Ami Popper, she says angrily, a Jewish Israeli man who killed seven Palestinian construction workers in 1990, but married twice and had children during periods of leave from prison.

YOUNIS: (Through translator) Ami Popper is allowed to visit his family. Ami Popper has two sons. My son was not allowed to attend his father's funeral. What democracy is this?

HARRIS: But most Israelis see Palestinian prisoners with Israeli citizenship as a particular threat, because they're not confined to Palestinian territories after prison. Member of parliament Miri Regev says, citizens or not, Palestinians who have killed Jews are enemies of Israel.

MIRI REGEV: (Through translator) Their ideologies are very clear: That the State of Israel shouldn't remain Jewish. We have no interest in allowing murderous terrorist prisoners to be released into the State of Israel.

HARRIS: Regev is in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party. She thinks Netanyahu should not have agreed to free any Palestinians convicted of violence against Israelis, even to restart peace talks.

REGEV: (Through translator) There's no connection between the two and reality proves this. We're at the fourth stage of prisoner release and we're not even close to peace. So who are we fooling?

HARRIS: Netanyahu is now suggesting he will delay the release until Palestinians agree to continue peace talks. But Palestinian politician Qaddura Fares, who heads a prisoner advocacy group, says releasing the prisoners now would build support for the talks, by showing the Palestinian people that dialog could lead to their goal of independence.

QADDURA FARES: We use this achievement, this very, very small and simple achievement in this hard discussion inside Palestine to convince the people that it's possible.

HARRIS: This is an unusual situation Palestinian Authority President Abbas is negotiating on behalf of Israeli citizens. Former Israeli peace negotiator Gilad Scher says that creates a particular problem.

GILAD SCHER: It's problematic because it is an intervention within the exclusive sovereignty and authority of the Israeli government. These are Israeli citizens, so why do we have to release them in a framework which is not internal Israeli?

HARRIS: This prisoner release could be a step toward separating Israelis and Palestinians into two states, even as they continue to live side by side. But it's still unclear whether it will take place.

Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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