Palestinians rally for solidarity with Israel-held prisoners
RAMALLAH - Palestinians gathered across the West Bank and Gaza on Thursday for rallies of solidarity with Israeli-held prisoners, as peace talks near collapse after Israel refused to free long-serving inmates.
To mark Prisoners Day, thousands were expected to demonstrate in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas has his headquarters, and hundreds took part in early rallies in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip late Wednesday.
"We won't forget our prisoners -- prisoners first!" read banners in Gaza City as demonstrators set off from mosques across the besieged territory.
The prisoners row caused a new deadlock in US-brokered peace talks at the end of March, just a month ahead of their deadline, when Israel reneged on its commitment to release a fourth and final batch of Palestinian inmates.
The Palestinians retaliated by seeking membership of several international treaties, breaking their own commitment under the talks which US Secretary of State John Kerry launched in July.
"Prisoners Day has extra importance this year," said the Palestinian Prisoners Club head, Abdel Al al-Anani.
"The prisoners issue has become one of global significance, since it is the reason that peace talks have almost collapsed," he said.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said in a statement: "The plight of the prisoners reflects the plight of the Palestinian people as a whole."
A one-day hunger strike was being observed by inmates to mark the annual show of solidarity with the nearly 5,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, Palestinian prisoners affairs minister Issa Qaraqe said.
Around 30 of them have been held being bars since before the 1993 Oslo autonomy accords with Israel, said a Palestinian legal rights NGO, Adalah.
Israel has so far released 78 of the 104 prisoners it pledged to free during nine months of peace talks, most of them imprisoned since before the Oslo accords.
But it refused to free the final batch, using it as a bargaining chip to convince the Palestinians to extend negotiations until the end of the year.
The Palestinians demand their release before any discussion of an extension.
But Islamist group Hamas, which governs Gaza, opposes all negotiations with Israel and regards the Palestinian Authority's meetings with its sworn enemy as "illegitimate."
"We are sending a message to the Palestinian negotiators: forget this farce, the futile negotiations, and come back to the resistance which freed prisoners," a Hamas member said in a speech at Wednesday's rally.
In June 2006, a group of Hamas and other militants snuck into Israel through a cross-border tunnel, seized Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and took their prisoner back to Gaza the same way.
He was released on October 18, 2011 in exchange for 1,027 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.
According to Israeli rights group B'Tselem, Israel is holding 4,881 Palestinian prisoners, including 175 in administrative detention where they can be detained without charge for renewable six-month periods.
Of that number, 183 are minors, B'Tselem says.