Weary pessimism accompanies hopes for Palestinian prisoner release

Palestinian Muslim worshipers walk towards the Qalandia checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem, in the occupied West Bank, on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan on August 2, 2013, as they head to the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City to pray. Abbas Momani / AFP - Getty Images

BETHLEHEM, West Bank - Spray-painted pictures of protest cover the 40-foot-high security barrier that separates the Palestinian West Bank from Israel near Bethlehem.

Many of the images show men that Israel's government calls terrorists. But on the Arab side of the wall they are known as freedom fighters.

It is a divide that many Palestinians and Israelis doubt can be bridged at peace talks in Washington, which got underway Tuesday.

At the end of the line of portraits on the Bethlehem wall is the smiling face of Khaled Al-Azraq, who was jailed in 1991 for planning a bomb attack in Jerusalem. 

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"Israel calls people like my brother ‘criminals,’” said his 33-year-old brother Nidal. "But for us they are heroes; heroes who have sacrificed many years of their lives for our future."

Al-Azraq is on a list of just over 100 prisoners who are set to be released over the next few months to help facilitate the peace negotiations. This is only a fraction of the 4,827 prisoners that the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, B'TSELEM, says are detained in Israeli prisons.

Such releases are very rare. The last time a significant number of prisoners were released was when kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was returned to Israel on Oct. 18, 2011, after more than five years in Hamas' captivity. At that time, 1,027 Palestinians were let go in exchange for his freedom. 

Palestinians say that releases are a fundamental component of the Oslo accords signed in 1993, which paved the way for a Palestinian government and called for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from most of the occupied territories.

While awaiting his brother’s release, Nidal Al-Azraq said he was resigned to failure of the talks and worse.

"There are many young men in this place who have no job and no money, who have spent time in prison as they were growing up,” he said. “When these talks lead nowhere, how do you think these men will react? They will explode.” 

At the same time, the decision to release the Palestinian prisoners was hard for many Israelis to swallow.

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"It's not easy for the cabinet ministers, and it is not easy for the bereaved families, whose feelings I understand," Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said before a cabinet vote last weekend giving the go-ahead for the release and the negotiations. “But there are moments in which tough decisions must be made for the good of the nation and this is one of those moments."

Netanyahu didn't have to look far to find disgust at the move. As the cabinet was meeting, protestors in Jerusalem held up their outstretched palms, which had been died red. Their message: The government had blood on its hands. 

Yet some of the loudest voices inside Israel in favor of the prisoner release come from those who have lost loved ones in the conflict. 

Robi Damelin's son David was 28 when he was shot dead while manning a roadblock on the West Bank.

"Without freeing the prisoners, there will never be peace," Damelin said. "The politicians can talk their heads off, but until we understand how important the prisoners issue is to the Palestinians, we will get nowhere." 

Her son's killer is not on the list of prisoners to be released under the latest agreement, but she has written to him in jail. 

"I got a pretty unpleasant response," she said. "But I dream of my grandchildren growing up in peace. If releasing that man brings us closer to that peace, then I say free him tomorrow.”

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Among the Palestinian leadership, the reaction to the prisoner release can be summed up in two words: at last. 

They find it difficult to welcome a decision they say should have been made a long time ago, and their reaction reflects their feeling of weary pessimism about the Secretary of State John Kerry’s renewed diplomatic drive.

"The prisoner release was agreed as part of the [1993] Oslo accords, and Mr. Netanyahu has refused to comply,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the executive committee of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

“If you sign an agreement and you don't honor it, what's the point of negotiating? We can't see this as a sign of good faith -- it's a necessary step."

Overdue or not, the prisoner release seems unlikely to lift the pessimistic mood on either side.