By MOHAMMED DARAGHMEH
RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) _ The Palestinians on Wednesday 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 U.S.-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 Tuesday 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 Wednesday that the Palestinians would “immediately” resume their U.N. campaign if Israel reneges on the release. The Palestinians froze these efforts as part of the U.S.-brokered package that relaunched the negotiations last year.
“We committed to not applying to the U.N. 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. On Tuesday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. 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 U.N. could cause new headaches for Israel on the global stage. Israel has condemned the campaign as an attempt to circumvent peace talks.
In 2012, the U.N. General Assembly granted the Palestinians upgraded “nonmember state” status, clearing the way for them to join various international agencies to pursue an anti-Israel agenda. In particular, Israel fears the Palestinians will try to pursue war crimes charges against Israel in the International Criminal Court.
The spat over the prisoner issue is the latest sign of trouble for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has spent months brokering talks between the sides.
Kerry had initially set a late-April target date for a full peace agreement. After that became unrealistic, he said he would try to present a “framework” agreement by April that could be the basis of additional talks for a final deal.
That scaled-back goal now appears to be in jeopardy as well due to deep gaps between the sides.
Also, the Palestinians have said they would seek an additional release of senior prisoners, including militant leader Marwan Barghouti, in exchange for extending talks.
The Palestinians have rejected Israel’s demand that they recognize the country as the homeland of the Jewish people. The Palestinians say this demand would undermine the rights of refugees who seek to return to lost properties in what is now Israel, as well as the rights of Israel’s Arab minority.
Israel, meanwhile, has rejected the Palestinians’ key territorial demands. The Palestinians seek the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip _ areas captured by Israel in 1967 _ for an independent state. They say Israel’s pre-1967 lines should be the basis for a final border, with modifications through mutually agreed swaps.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejects a return to the 1967 lines and any division of Jerusalem.
Speaking in parliament Wednesday, Netanyahu blamed the Palestinians for the impasse.
“The peace process is a process we want, but not at every cost. We are not willing to give up our basic demands,” he said. “I think that understanding people know well which side is resisting and which side is not.”
Adding to the tensions, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian who was trying to break through Israel’s West Bank separation barrier, the army said Wednesday. His family identified him as 14-year-old Yousef Shawamreh from a village near the city of Hebron. It was not immediately clear why he was cutting through.
Israel says its concrete and fence separation barrier is needed to keep Palestinian attackers out of Israel. Palestinians say the barrier stifles their towns and villages and steals their land.