Israel approves release of 26 Palestinian prisoners

Freed Palestinian prisoner Hosni Sawalha (centre) is greeted by relatives and friends upon his arrival in the West Bank village of Azmout near Nablus early August 14, 2013.  Israel on Sunday approved the release of 26 Palestinian prisoners,
Freed Palestinian prisoner Hosni Sawalha (centre) is greeted by relatives and friends upon his arrival in the West Bank village of Azmout near Nablus early August 14, 2013.  Israel on Sunday approved the release of 26 Palestinian prisoners, the second batch to be freed since August under the terms of renewed US-brokered peace talks. - FILE PHOTO: REUTERS 

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israel on Sunday approved the release of 26 Palestinian prisoners, the second batch to be freed since August under the terms of renewed US-brokered peace talks.

"The release of 26 prisoners has been validated this evening," said a statement from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office.

It said all the prisoners had committed their offences before the signing of the 1993 Oslo accords and had served 19-28 years in prison, with 21 hailing from the occupied West Bank and the remainder from the Gaza Strip.

A list of the prisoners was to be posted on the website of the Israeli prison authority late Sunday or early Monday after families of Israelis killed in attacks blamed on the prisoners had been notified, the statement said.

"The release of the prisoners will take place at least 48 hours after the publication of the list," it added.

Palestinian officials said they did not know the names of those slated for release.

Mr Netanyahu had said he would free 104 Palestinians in stages following the start of negotiations on July 30, and released the first group of 26 prisoners in August.

Most of the 104 are accused of taking part in attacks that killed Israelis prior to the 1993 Oslo agreement, which granted the Palestinians limited self-rule but failed to bring about an independent state or prevent a major uprising seven years later.

An Israeli official said last week that the release of prisoners was linked to continued construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories according to "understandings" reached with the Palestinians.

But the Palestinians adamantly denied that there was any connection between the two issues and have repeatedly condemned the continuing construction in the settlements, saying it threatens the peace talks.

Israeli media said Mr Netanyahu would likely announce additional settlement construction on Tuesday or Wednesday, to coincide with the release of the prisoners.

In August, Israel approved the construction of more than 2,000 settlement units in east Jerusalem and the West Bank just days before a round of bilateral talks, leading the Palestinians to warn the fledgling process was in danger of collapse.

Direct peace talks aimed at resolving the decades-old conflict resumed in July after a hiatus of nearly three years.

The talks had last broken down in 2010 over Mr Netanyahu's refusal to extend a moratorium on construction of new settler housing in the occupied West Bank and predominantly Arab east Jerusalem.

Few details have emerged about the latest talks, with both sides having adhered to a US-imposed media blackout on the substance of their discussions.

Some 5,000 Palestinians are being held in Israeli jails, and the Western-backed Palestinian Authority has long demanded their release.

Israel views Palestinians imprisoned for taking part in attacks as terrorists, but freed prisoners are welcomed home with great fanfare and seen by most Palestinians as heroes jailed for resisting the occupation.