Israel Releases Prisoners from Eastern Jerusalem

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

Jerusalem ( - Israel released seven Palestinian security prisoners Thursday as talks continued on a delayed troop withdrawal from another five percent of the disputed West Bank.

For the first time, Israel freed prisoners who are residents of eastern Jerusalem. It has declined to do so in the past for fear this would signal a willingness to transfer the eastern section of the city to the Palestinian Authority.

The seven, released in honor of the Muslim fast month of Ramadan, were to be received at Orient House, the PA's de facto Jerusalem headquarters. They include terrorists convicted of planting bombs, attempting to carry out a terror attack and attempted murder.

On Wednesday Israel released another 26 Palestinian security prisoners, breaking another former taboo by including a man who murdered an Israeli taxi driver and five Palestinians. Another freed prisoner murdered two Italian tourists. Also among the 26 were members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both of which reject the PA's talks with Israel.

Israel's Supreme Court earlier rejected a petition brought by the families of terror victims in an attempt to prevent the release of murderers.

Attorney for the applicants, Naftali Werzberger, criticized the government for not following the criteria it established just a few months ago when deciding which security prisoners to free.

"I though the criteria established by the government in the past constituted a red line," Werzberger was quoted as saying. "It turns out that each time it changes and tailors them according to its needs. What's the point of criteria if they keep changing?"

Israel has released 350 security prisoners in two stages over the past few months in fulfillment of commitments contained in a bilateral agreement signed in September.

Chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat told the PA was "happy" about the release of any prisoners, but expected a higher number of releases. He said he was not surprised by the release of prisoners from east Jerusalem.

Israel captured the eastern section of the city from Jordan during the 1967 Six-Day war and reunited the city under Israeli sovereignty. Israel maintains that a "united" Jerusalem is the "eternal" capital of Israel while the PA hopes to plant the capital of a future state in the eastern section of the city. The future status of the city is one of the thorniest issues in final status negotiations.

Another sign that Israel might be softening its stance regarding eastern Jerusalem came earlier this week, when unconfirmed reports said Israel had offered the PA civilian control over two Arab neighborhoods in northern Jerusalem. Neither the Prime Minister's Office nor the Jerusalem municipality would comment on the report.

Meanwhile, talks are continuing between Israel and the PA today on the five per cent further redeployment, which should have taken place by November 15.

That troop pullback was held up when the PA rejected a map presented to Israel showing the land Israel planned to cede. The PA insisted it be consulted about which land it was to receive, while Israel maintained it was not obliged to do so.

Erekat said he hoped the problem would be resolved at a meeting with the head of the Israeli negotiating team today.

"Most of the land in the five per cent is already agreed upon," he said, while the principle of "who will determine the maps" remained a sticking-point.