The Palestinian Authority's minister of prisoners' affairs warned Israel Thursday against backtracking on its past commitment to free the fourth and final group of prisoners as part of the US-brokered peace talks, a move which will prove key in deciding whether the talks, resumed in July after a three-year hiatus, unravel or not.
Under the deal relaunching the peace negotiations, Israel said it would release 104 Arab prisoners held since before the 1993 Oslo Accords in exchange for the Palestinians not pressing their statehood claims via the UN.
Israel has so far freed 78 prisoners but there are growing fears Netanyahu's cabinet may block the final release, particularly that of Israeli Arab terrorists. As the release nears, victims of terror attacks have been mounting pressuring against the government in a bid to force it to backtrack on the release.
According to Ma'an, Palestinian Authority Minister of Prisoners' Affairs Issa Qaraqe said in a statement that the release was crucial for any future progress in the peace talks and served as a test of Israel's reliability in the peace process.
"Israel has been playing an ugly game of blackmail ... using Palestinian prisoners as a pressure tool to obtain political gains, which we completely reject," Ma'an quoted Qaraqe as saying.
Qaraqe said that he holds Israel responsible for the consequences of not releasing the prisoners on time, warning of the "anger" in the Palestinian street.
Qaraqe, Ma'an reported, added that if Israel did not release all prisoners it committed to, the Palestinian Authority would have no choice but to turn to international bodies for recognition.
He further noted that the prisoners set to be released had expressed their support for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his resolve and determination to secure their release.
Israel has already freed three groups of veteran prisoners as part of a trust-building measure in ongoing peace talks, and are due to release a fourth group in April.
Israeli officials have hinted that release of the fourth group might be conditional on Abbas agreeing to extend talks beyond their end of April deadline, but Abbas has been reluctant to do so, citing ongoing settlement construction and a lack of progress in talks.