JERUSALEM – Israel approved building nearly 1,200 more settlement homes Sunday and agreed to release 26 long-held Palestinian security prisoners – highlighting an apparent settlements-for-prisoners trade-off that got both sides back to peace talks after a five-year freeze.
Yet concerns were mounting, especially among Palestinians, that the price is too steep. Sunday’s announcement was Israel’s third in a week on promoting Jewish settlements on war-won lands the Palestinians want for a state. It fueled Palestinian fears of a new Israeli construction spurt under the cover of U.S.-sponsored negotiations.
In Israel, the most vocal protests came from relatives of those killed in attacks carried out by Palestinians slated for release.
“Why are we releasing butchers now? What for?” asked Gila Molcho, whose brother, lawyer Ian Feinberg, was stabbed to death by Palestinians who broke into a European aid office in Gaza City in 1993.
Israelis and Palestinians are to launch talks on Wednesday in Jerusalem, following a preparatory round two weeks ago in Washington. The U.S. envisions an agreement within nine months on the terms of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, including drawing a border, agreeing on security arrangements and deciding the fate of Palestinian refugees.
The Palestinians want a state to include the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war. However, they are willing to swap some West Bank land for Israeli territory to allow Israel to annex some of the largest Jewish settlements. In all, Israel has built dozens of settlements since 1967 that are now home to some 560,000 Israelis.
The diplomatic paralysis of the last five years was largely due to disputes over the settlements, deemed illegal by most of the international community.