Israel prepares to release prisoners to secure peace talks

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Abi always wears sunglasses, because the daylight stings his eyes. A discomfort which is a constant reminder of the tragedy which engulfed his family.

On the eve of Passover in 1987, Abi and his pregnant wife, Ofra, got in their car to drive to the supermarket. Their three children were in the back.

Abi tells his story to Geraint Vincent
Abi tells his story to Geraint Vincent Credit: ITV News

A couple of miles from home, while they waited at a junction, a firebomb was thrown at their car. 26 years later, at the roadside, Abi points to the exact spot where his wife burned to death.

"I managed to get the kids out, but I wasn't quick enough for Ofra. I tried to open the door on her side of the car, but it was impossible. I still hear her screams."

Abi keeps a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about what happened to his loved ones. Next to a picture of his wife, on the first page, a picture of their youngest son.

Five-year-old Tal died in hospital after a fight for life which went on for weeks. There are other pictures of Abi with his surviving children.

They are good-looking family, but their limbs are taught with the stretches and ridges of grafted skin.

Ali's son Tal died from his injuries
Ali's son Tal died from his injuries Credit: ITV News

The man who threw the firebomb which killed Ofra and Tal is called Daoud Adal Hassan Mahmad.

In the next few months, he will be released from prison as part of what the British Foreign Office has described as a 'brave and forward-looking decision', in advance of peace talks, which are due to resume in Jerusalem this week.

A total of 104 Palestinian prisoners are due to be let go. "This moment is not easy for me," said the Israeli Prime Minister before a cabinet vote which approved the decision.

"It's not easy for the cabinet ministers, and it is not easy for the bereaved families, whose feelings I understand.

"But there are moments in which tough decisions must be made for the good of the nation and this is one of those moments."

srael, authorise the Palestinians in the West Bank to pass to Jerusalem on Fridays during the Ramadan
Israel, authorise the Palestinians in the West Bank to pass to Jerusalem on Fridays during the Ramadan Credit: AA / SCANPIX/Scanpix/Press Association Images

In other parts of this disputed land, the release will be not just welcomed, but celebrated. Through the streets of Bethlehem, there runs a forty foot high security barrier. Its grey concrete is decorated with spray-painted pictures of protest.

Among them is a line of portraits. Men who are in prison for crimes against the state of Israel. Israel's government calls them terrorists. On the Arab side of the wall, they are freedom fighters.

On the end of the line of portraits is the smiling face of Khaled Al-Azraq. He was jailed in 1991 for planning a bomb attack in Jerusalem.

Two Palestinians climb over the security barrier
Two Palestinians climb over the security barrier Credit: AA / SCANPIX/Scanpix/Press Association Images

At his family home there is a photograph of him looking not so happy. Taken at the time of his arrest, he glares at the camera, his face face full of fierce resentment. Khaled Al-Azraq is now one of the 104.

"Israel calls people like my brother criminals", Khaled's brother, Nidal, tells me. "But for us they are heroes. Heroes who have sacrificed many years of their lives for our future."

Amongst the Palestinian leadership the reaction to the prisoner release can be summed up in two words: "at last".

They find it very difficult to welcome a decision they say should have been made a long time ago, and their reaction reflects their feeling of weary pessimism about the Kerry initiative.

"The prisoner release was agreed as part of the Oslo accords, and Mr Netanyahu has refused to comply," says Hanan Ashrawi, of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation.

"If you sign an agreement and you don't honour it, what's the point of negotiating? We can't see this as a sign of good faith -- it's a necessary step"

Abi tells his story to Geraint Vincent
Palestinian families wait to receive the news of whether their loved ones will be freed Credit: AA / SCANPIX/Scanpix/Press Association Images

The week after it agreed the prisoner release, Israel's government announced plans to build nearly 1200 new settler homes on land the Palestinians hope to secure for their state.

This was condemned by the Palestinians' chief negotiator, and even the US State Department, which is sponsoring the peace talks, criticised the move.

The settlement announcement was seen by some as an attempt by Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu to assuage the right wing of his coalition government, furious at his plans for the prisoner release.

Back at the roadside, where a fruit market has been named after his dead wife and son, Abi sees it more clearly.

"To begin these negotiations again, the government had a choice," he says.

"Either they agree to stop building the settlements, or they release some murderers. They chose the easier option. To resume these talks, they're using my family's blood."

Peace, and even peace talks, have a price. Sometime soon, it will be Abi's turn to pay it.