Israel will release 26 Palestinian prisoners ahead of renewed peace talks, an official statement has said, with the Israeli security agency saying that most of them are “low risk prisoners”.
Late on Sunday night, an Israeli ministerial committee approved and published the names of Palestinian detainees that were to be released by Tuesday, ahead of the resumption of direct talks next week between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in Jerusalem and Jericho.
The prisoners are the first of a total of 104 that Israel has promised to release within a year as part of a deal secured after months of shuttle diplomacy by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who has visited the region six times since March.
But Palestinian prisoners rights groups say that, upon close inspection, the deal is not the concession the Israelis are touting it to be.
Most of the detainees slated to be released on Tuesday have already served 20 years behind bars.
Fuad Al-Khafsh, the director of Ahrar Center for Prisoners Studies and Human Rights, said the list was “disappointing for the detainees, their families and the Palestinian people generally, because it did not rely on the principle of seniority,” referring to those who have served the longest time in prison.
Al-Khafsh clarified that he “welcomed the prospect of freedom for any detainee, but that there needs to be clear criteria for the release”.
‘The more dangerous prisoners’
None of those released were Palestinian citizens of Israel, nor did any hail from East Jerusalem.
|Al Jazeera spoke to the family of one of Palestinian detainee waiting to be freed after 20 years in jail.|
“There is a disproportionate number of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, 15, due to be released, even though the bulk of pre-Oslo detainees  are from the West Bank,” he said.
Only 23 of the detainees who have served more than 20 years in Israeli prisons are from the coastal enclave.
One of the detainees, Burhan Sbeih, was detained in 2001 and is a preventative security officer and “is not part of the pre-Oslo detainees group,” Al Khafsh added.
The timing of the release of the names, which took place between midnight and 1 am, is also being criticised.
Some said the Israeli authorities wanted to prevent Monday-morning newspapers from highlighting the issue further, or to deprive the Palestinians of time to plan celebrations.
While none of the detainees will be deported or internally displaced to the Gaza Strip, Ha’aretz reported (citing sources in the prime minister’s office) that in the next three rounds “the more dangerous prisoners will be released, and Israel will request they be deported to the Gaza Strip”.
In the first phase Israel is releasing those considered by Shin Bet, the domestic security agency, to be “low risk” prisoners.
As is the case with previous prisoner releases, Israeli authorities said that any detainee who engages in “terrorist activity” will be arrested and returned to a prison in Israel.
But some of the prisoners released in 2011 were re-arrested either for reasons unknown or for leaving their hometown and crossing into the West Bank.
Meanwhile, chief Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erekat told the Reuters news agency that negotiations with Israel have been undermined by newly announced plans to expand illegal Israeli settlements.
“The international community must stand with this peace process and must stand shoulder to shoulder with us and hold Israel accountable for its continuing settlement activities,” Erekat said.
Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, dismissed the criticism, saying the new construction would take place in areas Israel intends to keep in any future peace agreement.
“This in no way changes the final map of peace. It changes nothing,” Regev said.