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Israel-Palestinian Peace Process: Knesset Passes Law That Limits Palestinian Prisoner Releases

The Israeli Knesset voted 35-15 on November 3, 2014, to preclude the government from negotiating with Palestinians through prisoner releases and exchanges.  Israeli officials have frequently negotiated prisoner exchange agreements, most famously when they agreed to release 1,027 Palestinian prisoners for the release of Gilad Shalit who was kidnapped by Hamas terrorists. Following that mass release, many prisoners were rearrested, including 60 shortly before Operation Protective Edge in July-August 2014. 

Since Israel began negotiating prisoner exchange deals in 1985, they have released more than 3,500 Palestinians.  The number of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons is estimated to be around 5,500 (B'tselem, September 30 2014).  In addition to trading prisoners for captive Israelis, the government has sometimes released prisoners as a goodwill gesture to satisfy Palestinian demands in peace talks.

Following the vote prominent Israeli politician Naftali Bennet said that "terrorists should die in jail."   The new law prohibits the release of Palestinian prisoners who are serving life sentences in Israeli prisons. In the past, Israel has released Palestinians by commuting their sentences.  Under the new law,  a Palestinian sentenced to life in prison cannot be freed until they have served at least 15 years of their sentence, after which they may be freed during negotiations but their remaining sentence cannot be reduced to less than 40 years. 

This law applies to individuals incarcerated from November 2014 onward, and does not apply to prisoners currently in Israeli prisons, who may still be released in negotiations. The law does not affect the president’s power to issue pardons.
Critics of the legislation argue that it will now be significantly harder to negotiate the release of captive Israeli soldiers. They claim that the government is “tying it’s hands” by removing one of Israel’s most valuable bargaining chips.

The prisoner issue is one of the most sensitive for the Palestinians and the ability to negotiate their release is a sign of strength. Consequently, the Palestinian leadership seeks to pressure Israel to release as many prisoners as possible, including those with “blood on their hands,” while making as few concessions as possible.

Sources:Times of Israel (November 4, 2014); Reuters (November 4, 2014); World Bulletin (November 4, 2014); B'tselem (September 30 2014);