Thirty veteran Palestinian prisoners who were eligible to be freed on March 29 applauded President Mahmoud Abbas’ decision to apply for membership in international agencies, a statement said Wednesday.’President Abu Mazen (Abbas) stood up for our dignity and our freedom,’ the statement said. ‘We support his efforts and his decision — we refuse to be used as a bargaining chip.’

‘Our fate and destiny are not separate from that of our people. Israel must pay a toll for the crimes committed against Palestinian prisoners and the Palestinian people.’

Ma’an News Agency reports that, as a stipulation for relaunching peace negotiations in July, Israel agreed to release 104 Palestinian veteran prisoners — jailed before the 1993 Oslo accords — in exchange for the PLO’s pledge not to apply to international bodies.

Seventy-eight prisoners have been freed so far in three separate tranches.

Israel was scheduled to release the final group of prisoners on Saturday, but did not. In response, Abbas said on Tuesday that he had begun steps to join several UN agencies.

Furthermore, according to an AFP report, an Israeli minister on Wednesday has warned of punitive action if the PLO pursued efforts to join the agencies, as hopes of a breakthrough in negotiations faded rapidly.

‘If they are now threatening (to go to UN institutions), they must know something simple — they will pay a heavy price,’ Tourism Minster Uzi Landau told public radio.

Peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians were relaunched in July, under the auspices of the US, after nearly three years of impasse.

Israel’s government has announced the construction of thousands of settler housing units and its army has killed 60 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza since the negotiations began.

The Palestinians had repeatedly threatened to resume their action, through international courts and the UN, over Israel’s settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which is considered illegal under international law.