Tel Aviv - The Israeli government has advanced a bill that could block the future release of prisoners during negotiations with the Palestinians.
The bill would allow judges to give murderers life sentences that are ineligible for presidential pardons, denying the government a tool it has routinely used to free prisoners for negotiations or swap deals.
Lawmakers approved the bill on Sunday in a 7-3 vote at a ministerial committee, clearing the way for a vote before the full Knesset this summer.
The move is a victory for right-wing members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, who were angered last summer when Israel promised to release 104 prisoners as a condition for restarting talks. It cancelled the fourth and final round of pardons last month, however, a move that caused the talks to collapse.
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The tougher sentences would only apply to future convictions, not retroactively, so the bill would have no impact on the thousands of prisoners currently in Israeli jails.
Naftali Bennett, the chairman of the right-wing Jewish Home party, called for a quick vote on the bill. "The state of Israel opened a new page today in its war on terrorism and its moral obligation to the bereaved families," he said in a statement. "Murderers should die in jail, not celebrate at home."
Ayelet Shaked, the Knesset member who introduced the bill, said it would apply equally to Jews and Palestinians. "Just as Arab murderers wouldn't receive a pardon, neither would Yigal Amir," she told Israel Radio, referring to the man who assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
This is Israel's reaction to the fact that the plight of the detainees has turned into a huge international story.
But the timing of the law highlights how the Israeli right is trying to score points with its supporters. "There’s a very strong and vocal lobby from the families of the victims," said Mordechai Kremnitzer, a law professor at Hebrew University and a former military judge. "And from the political forces... the motivation behind the law is clear, to put another obstacle in the path of having an agreement."
One of the votes against the bill came from Tzipi Livni, the justice minister and chief Israeli negotiator during the latest round of talks. Her spokesman refused to comment on the legislation.
David Tzur, a member of Livni’s centrist HaTnuah party, broke ranks and voted for the bill. "Releasing murderers as a condition for negotiations is immoral, and also unhelpful," he said.
Some Palestinian officials believed the draft would not pass the full Knesset. "What if an Israeli soldier was kidnapped in the future?" asked Qaddura Fares, a Palestinian former minister and the head of the Palestinian Prisoners Club. "Will the Israeli government decide not to exchange him for Palestinian prisoners because of such a ridiculous law?"
"This bill is a reflection of the state of confusion hitting this current Israeli government," added Fares.
Issa Qaraqe, the Palestinian Minister for Prisoners Affairs, condemned the Israeli plan. "The draft law is not new," he said, describing it as a "fad" to propose harsh legislation targeting Palestinians in general, and prisoners specifically. "This is Israel's reaction to the fact that the plight of the detainees has turned into a huge international story."
Meanwhile, 140 Palestinian "administrative detainees" in Israeli prisons have refused food for 18 consecutive days. Administrative detention is a procedure Israel has used since 1967 to hold prisoners indefinitely on secret information, without charging them or allowing them to stand trial. There are around 200 Palestinians administratively detained in Israel, out of around 5,000 total prisoners.
This hunger strike dates back to May 2012, when Israel agreed to limit its use of administrative detention to end an earlier hunger strike. Palestinian groups say Israeli authorities have reneged on the agreement.