Israel Alters Criteria to Fulfill Prisoner Release

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israel and the Palestinians sought Thursday to resolve a last-minute hitch in the release of Palestinian prisoners, scheduled for Friday.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak's office said 150 Arab prisoners would be released on Friday, in accordance with the recent Sharm el-Sheik agreement.

However, a dispute surrounds about 40 of those prisoners, including minors and some convicts with only a few months of their sentences left to serve. The Palestinian Authority wants Israel to free prisoners who have five years or more left to serve, and it is this issue that is holding up tomorrow's planned release.

Earlier, Israel was obliged to change criteria it set earlier, in order to arrive at the promised number of 150 prisoners to free. Accordingly, among the prisoners due for release there are now some who had been disqualified.

The initial criteria excluded any prisoner who had killed an Israeli; who had committed a crime after September 1993, when peace talks started; who was a resident of Jerusalem; or who belonged to Hamas, Islamic Jihad or any "rejectionist" group which rejected peace talks with Israel.

However, according to a Justice Ministry statement, Israel will in fact release some prisoners incarcerated after 1993 but before the end of 1995, as well as Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists who had no more than six months to serve in their sentences and had not been involved in attacks against Israelis.

Also due to be freed among the 150 prisoners are 28 foreigners who will be repatriated - Egyptians, Jordanians, Lebanese and at least one Syrian.

"The members of the cabinet needed to decide what was more important," Foreign Minister David Levy told Israel Radio.

"We are committed to releasing a certain number of prisoners, and the question is: Should we let out those who killed Israelis, or should we try to find others - like rejectionists - to fill the quota," he said.

The Sharm el-Sheik memorandum was signed by Barak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat in the presence of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in early September. It called for the release of 350 Palestinian security prisoners.

Prior to the release of the first round of prisoners - 199 were freed on September 9 - Prof. Louis Beres, a former legal advisor to Israel's Foreign Ministry, wrote that freeing Palestinian terrorists was against international law.

"Every state has an obligation under international law to seek out and to prosecute terrorists," he wrote.

Since Israel apprehended and was in the process of punishing these terrorists who had also committed crimes against other nations' citizens, Beres reasoned, Israel had "absolutely no right to grant any sort of immunity for any violations of international law."

However, Beres told, Israel was "beyond punishment on this matter," since it has "substantially punished itself" in releasing the terrorists.