An EU parliamentary delegation on Thursday urged Israel to release long-term Arab terrorists, saying it was crucial to move a fragile Middle East peace process forward.
"We believe that the release of prisoners... is central to the peace process," said Emer Costello, who headed the EU delegation on a three-day fact-finding mission on Palestinian Arab prisoners held in Israeli jails.
"I think there is an acceptance on both sides, even with the members of the Knesset that we met, (of the) importance of the prisoner issue," Costello said.
The visit of four EU MPs came as Israel was mulling whether or not to release a final batch of jailed terrorists, most of whom "have blood on their hands", under its commitments to US-brokered peace talks.
Israel agreed to release a total of 104 prisoners as a "goodwill gesture" to convince the Palestinian Authority (PA) to come back to the table as talks were kick-started by US Secretary of State John Kerry in July.
It has freed 78 so far, but Israeli ministers have implicitly warned that should the PA not agree to extend talks beyond their April 29 deadline and instead pursue unilateral moves in violation of previous agreements, they will not release the remaining terrorists as scheduled on March 29.
Even left-wing Justice Minister and chief Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni said that the PA would need to prove its commitment to talks to secure the final batch. Israelis are extremely skeptical about the PA's seriousness about finding a real solution to the conflict. Several senior PA sources have openly said their only motivation in the talks was to release the 104 prisoners, not to reach an agreement with Israel.
"In order to advance serious negotiations, we will all need to take decisions and prove we are determined to reach an agreement and real peace. That burden of proof is also on the Palestinians' shoulders," Livni was quoted on her Facebook page as saying yesterday.
But the EU sees things differently.
"We would certainly hope that those prisoner releases would continue and would take place. It is important as well that there are people in custody who are actually pre-Oslo," Costello said, referring to the failed 1993 Oslo peace accords.
"From the EU parliament's perspective... we (have) expressed major concern about the fact that there are currently 11 members of the PLC (PA parliament) being held in custody... We would be seeking their release," she added.
Costello said Israel had barred the delegation from visiting the prisons, confining the trip to meetings with Israeli MPs and local rights groups.
Israel holds more than 5,000 Palestinian Arabs in its prisons, most of them for terrorist offenses.
The release of 78 long-term Palestinian Arab prisoners since July has been welcomed by PA chief Mahmoud Abbas and by the PA public, especially jubilant families of the inmates, who saw their internment as "political."
But it has angered bereaved Israeli families, whose relatives were murdered at the hands of many of those released.
Abbas told US President Barack Obama on Monday that releasing the terrorists would be a good step to demonstrate Israel's "seriousness" about the peace process.
Peace talks relaunched last July have made next to no progress, marred by bitter disputes over core issues, and Washington is fighting an uphill battle to get agreement on a framework proposal that would extend the process to the year's end.