The Israeli government has approved the release of 104 long-serving Palestinian and Israeli Arab prisoners, to coincide with the resumption of peace talks, public radio said.
It reported that the 22-member cabinet on Sunday approved Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s proposal by 13 votes to seven with two abstentions.
Two ministers of Netanyahu’s Likud Party voted no, an official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.
The Cabinet approved the release in four stages over several months, with each step linked to progress in the negotiations.
Commenting on the Israeli cabinet approval to release pre-Oslo Palestinian prisoners, Saeb Erekat, Palestinian chief negotiator, said in a statement that the work to release all political prisoners will continue.
“This Israeli cabinet decision is an overdue step towards the implementation of the Sharm el Sheikh agreement of 1999,” Erekat said, “whereby Israel committed to release all the pre-Oslo prisoners.”
“We welcome this decision 14 years later.”
Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian government spokesman, told Al Jazeera that such a decision was “long overdue”, as Israel “had released some Palestinian prisoners as part of the Oslo Accords, but kept 104.”
He went on to say that nothing was certain as “we need to wait and see because there are several times Israel has promised to do something and failed to do so.”
In his opinion, he did not see a strong connection between the upcoming negotiations between the two sides and the release of the prisoners.
“I think there are other more substantive political issues which need to be taken into consideration, such as dealing with the 1967 borders, as well as a freeze on settlements,” he said, two issues which are key for the Palestinians.
“I didn’t hear anything from the Israelis on either of these issues.”
According to a list provided by the Palestinians, the prisoners have served between 19 and 30 years for involvement in deadly attacks on Israelis.
On Saturday, Netanyahu sought to win over opponents within his own party, with his office telling the media that he had said: “There are moments when one must make hard decisions for the good of the country and this is one of those moments.”
“This moment is not easy is for me, not easy for the ministers, and especially not easy for the bereaved families,” Netanyahu said.
The planned releases have brought protests from Israeli victims’ families, settlers and Netanyahu’s hardline coalition partners.
“Releasing terrorists for peace is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline, it is dangerous, immoral and irresponsible,” settler leader Dani Dayan said in a statement.
(Al Jazeera and Agencies)