Israel releases prisoners, approves new housing in disputed area
REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM -- Israel’s release of 550 prisoners on Sunday concluded a controversial two-stage swap that freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for 1,027 Palestinians.
Separately, the government announced plans to build more than 1,000 new housing units on disputed land it seized during the 1967 Mideast War.
Shalit, who had held captive in the Gaza Strip for five years, was released in October after Israel reached an agreement with the Palestinian militant group Hamas and freed 477 prisoners, including many who were serving life sentences for terrorist attacks against Israelis.
As part of the deal, Israel was allowed to select those who would be released in the second phase. As a result, none freed Sunday belonged to Hamas or Islamic Jihad, another Gaza militant group, officials said. Most were petty criminals and those who had nearly completed their prison terms.
The group included 40 prisoners from the Gaza Strip, 55 minors, six women, two Jordanians and a French national who had served seven years in prison and was set to be released in early 2012, officials said.
In the West Bank city of Ramallah, where most of the prisoners were freed Sunday night, family members waited for hours to greet their loved ones at large celebrations. Nearly a dozen Palestinians were injured in brief clashes outside the Ofer detention facility between the crowd awaiting the release and Israeli soldiers.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was expected to meet with the former prisoners on Monday.
As the prisoner release was being carried out, Israel’s Housing Ministry said it would construct another 1,028 housing units in the West Bank and Jerusalem area. The expansion includes 500 units in Har Homa, 348 in Beitar Ilit and 180 in Givat Zeev.
“Some countries around the world may not be happy about this, but they shouldn’t be surprised,” Housing Minister Ariel Atia told the Israeli news site Ynet. He said the move would lower home prices and increase supply, assisting young Israeli couples looking for affordable housing.
According to Atia, the government approved the new units partly in response to the Palestinian Authority’s successful bid last month to join UNESCO, a United Nations organization. Israel opposed the effort, saying it would discourage Palestinians from returning to the negotiating table.
The U.N. and many countries consider Israel’s settlement construction illegal and have urged it to refrain from building on land that Palestinians hope to one day make part of their state.
The development of Har Homa is seen as particularly sensitive because its expansion threatens to cut off direct access between Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Bethlehem.
The number of new settlement units approved in 2011 is on track to be three times higher than in any other recent year, according to Hagit Ofran of Peace Now, an Israeli group that tracks settlements.
“This government is doing it because there is no pressure to stop them,” Ofran said. “After [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu got standing ovations in Congress [during a U.S. visit in May], he feels he can do whatever he wants.”
Palestinian officials said the new housing units bolster their claim that Israel is not serious about resuming peace talks. Israelis blames Palestinians for refusing to return to the negotiating table without preconditions, including a halt to settlement construction.
--Edmund Sanders. Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah contributed to this report.
Photo: An Israeli border police officer fires a tear gas canister toward protesters throwing stones in Ramallah on Sunday as Palestinians awaited the release of 550 prisoners. Credit: Majdi Mohammed / Associated Press