The Palestinian people's threatened to resume their campaign for international recognition at the United Nations if Israel calls off a planned release of Palestinian prisoners, deepening a crisis that has threatened to derail US-led Mideast peace efforts.
Israel pledged to release 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners in four stages at the outset of the current round of talks last July. The fourth and final release was set to take place by March 29.
But in recent days, Israel has signaled it may not carry out the final release. Israel's chief negotiator, Tzipi Livni, told a conference yesterday that Israel never committed to the releases and that much would depend on progress in the final month of talks. After months of deadlock, Israel is seeking an extension of negotiations beyond the current late-April deadline.
Palestinian official Nabil Shaath said today that the Palestinians would "immediately" resume their UN campaign if Israel reneges on the release. The Palestinians froze these efforts as part of the US-brokered package that relaunched the negotiations last year.
"We committed to not applying to the UN agencies and Israel committed to release 104 ... prisoners in four batches," he said. "That was the deal. If Israel breaches it, we will too."
The issue of prisoners is deeply emotional for both Israelis and Palestinians.
The Palestinians consider the 5,000 prisoners held by Israel to be heroes in the struggle for independence. Prisoners freed in previous releases have received jubilant welcomes upon their return.
Israel considers the prisoners to be terrorists. The people freed in the previous releases had all served lengthy sentences for participating in bloody attacks on Israelis, and the Palestinian celebrations have sparked widespread anger. But Israel may have little choice on the matter.
Yesterday, US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the US supports the prisoner release. "It's part of what was agreed to between the parties," she said.
In addition, the resumption of the Palestinian at the campaign at the UN could cause new headaches for Israel on the global stage. Israel has condemned the campaign as an attempt to circumvent peace talks.