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Israel set for new prisoner release as Kerry heads back to region

A child runs with the Palestinian flag as friends and relatives prepare for the release of prisoner Ramy Barbakh, 37, outside his home in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on December 29, 2013
A child runs with the Palestinian flag as friends and relatives prepare for the release of prisoner Ramy Barbakh, 37, outside his home in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on December 29, 2013

Israel prepared Sunday to free 26 Palestinian prisoners under peace talks brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who is returning to the region to boost the faltering negotiations.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had agreed to the phased release of 104 Palestinian prisoners in line with commitments to the US-backed talks, which resumed in July, and previous batches were freed in August and October.

The release of the third tranche of 26 prisoners "should come on Monday night after the 48-hour delay given for appeals from victims' families to the supreme court," an official in Netanyahu's office told AFP.

In the past, the supreme court has turned down all appeals against the release of Palestinian prisoners.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs a weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, on December 29, 2013
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs a weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, on December 29, 2013

Netanyahu's government gave the green light on Saturday for the latest release.

"All of the released prisoners perpetrated offences prior to the (1993) Oslo accords and have served sentences of 19-28 years," a government statement said.

"We're ecstatic, we couldn't believe our uncle would be among those released, since Israel has always vetoed him," said Samia Tamimi, whose uncle Said is set to be freed after 21 years in prison for killing an Israeli.

In Israel, members of bereaved families did not hide their dismay and anger.

"I feel my uncle is being killed for a second time -- this time by my government," said Ortal Tamam, whose relative was killed by Palestinians in 1984.

Dozens have been protesting the impending release outside Netanyahu's Jerusalem residence since Wednesday, with police arresting two people who tried to block roads at the entrance to the city in protest.

Relatives and friends of Palestinian prisoner Said al-Tamimi prepare his home after receiving the news of his impending release from an Israeli jail, in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, on December 29, 2013
Relatives and friends of Palestinian prisoner Said al-Tamimi prepare his home after receiving the news of his impending release from an Israeli jail, in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, on December 29, 2013

To the fury of the Palestinians, the two previous prisoner releases were accompanied by announcements of new construction plans for Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, including annexed Arab east Jerusalem.

Monday's release is expected to be no different, despite US and EU appeals to desist from making such announcements.

Pressure from ultra-nationalists

Israeli media reports suggested Netanyahu was likely to unveil plans to build an additional 1,400 housing units, on top of those already announced, following strong pressure from ultra-nationalist members of his governing coalition.

Meanwhile on Sunday, a committee of Israeli ministers voted initial approval of a bill that would annex the settlements in the Jordan Valley, the area that would be the eastern front of a future Palestinian state.

A relative of Palestinian prisoner Said al-Tamimi (portrait) weeps as family and friends prepare his home after receiving the news of his impending release from an Israeli jail, in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, on December 29, 2013
A relative of Palestinian prisoner Said al-Tamimi (portrait) weeps as family and friends prepare his home after receiving the news of his impending release from an Israeli jail, in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, on December 29, 2013

Israel wants to keep a military presence there, but the Palestinians reject such a notion.

The proposal, by hardliner Miri Regev of Netanyahu's Likud party, was slammed by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni as "irresponsible" and aimed at getting Regev media attention.

Livni, who is also Israel's chief negotiator with the Palestinians, said on her Facebook page she and other ministers would appeal against the bill, effectively paralysing it before it could be approved in parliament.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told Palestinian news agency Maan the vote showed Israel's "indifference" to international law, and called on the international community to hold Israel accountable for it.

The latest prisoner release comes as Kerry prepares to begin a fresh tour of the region on New Year's Day to try to push the talks forward.

US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) meets with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas at the Palestinian presidential compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on December 5, 2013
US Secretary of State John Kerry (left) holds talks with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on December 5, 2013

It will be his 10th trip to Israel and the occupied West Bank since March, with his most recent visit made earlier this month.

Kerry has been pressing Israel and the Palestinians to agree a framework for a final settlement ahead of an agreed late April target date for the talks to conclude.

US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro told army radio that "the objective is to reach a framework for the negotiations in the coming months, that would put an end to the Israeli-Palestinian" conflict.

The ambassador did not rule out the possibility of the talks extending beyond their April deadline, something specifically excluded by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas at an Arab League meeting in Cairo this month.

Abbas also ruled out any more interim accords like the successive deals in the 1990s that gave the Palestinians limited autonomy in Gaza and parts of the West Bank.