JERUSALEM: The Palestinians’ demand for Arab-Israelis to figure among 26 prisoners due for release under US-brokered peace efforts has sparked an outcry in Israel’s coalition government that could wreck the initiative.
“My party and I shall oppose at any price the release of Arab Israeli terrorists,” Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharo–novitch, of the far-right Yisrael Beitenu party, told public radio on Sunday.
“So far no [cabinet]decision has been taken,” said Aharonovitch, one of five ministers on a committee charged with approving each stage of the release of 104 long-term prisoners, 78 of whom have already been freed with the final batch due for release on March 29.
Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, a hawkish member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netan–yahu’s Likud party, has already pledged to resign if Arab-Israelis are included in the deal.
The hardline religious na–tionalist Jewish Home party has also threatened to quit Netanyahu’s coalition if imprisoned Arab- Israelis or Palestinian residents of Jerusalem walk free.
Israel’s Arab community has its roots in the 160,000 Palestinians who stayed on their land after the creation of the Jewish state in 1948.
Today, they and their des–cendants number around 1.6 million out of a total Israeli population of eight million.
Those jailed for militant attacks are considered by Israel not only as “terrorists” but also as traitors.
In addition, Palestinians in annexed east Jerusalem have the status of Israeli residents, holding Israeli-issued identification docu–ments and entitled to free move–ment around Israel, unlike Pales–tinians from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas is adamant that prisoners from both communities be eligible for the next release.
With the US-brokered re–sumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians in July, Israel agreed to release 104 prisoners with their iden-tities to be vetted by the ministerial committee.
Candidates for the final tranche have not yet been named by Israeli authorities.
Commentators warn that the issue may sound the death knell for the already-sluggish talks which were scheduled to reach a conclu–sion on April 29, but show no signs of meeting the deadline.