The State Department could not say Tuesday whether the Obama administration considers the prisoners it has pressured Israel to release are guilty of any wrongdoing. Israel is set to release 26 Palestinians Tuesday who have been serving jail sentences for murder and terrorism.
Asked whether the administration considers the prisoners to be terrorists, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said, "I do not have a position on that."
Asked whether the administration objects to the Palestinian Authority officially designating the murderers and terrorists as "freedom fighters" and "political prisoners," the State Department spokeswoman answered repeatedly, "I don't have a position on that."
The Israeli government released a list of the terrorists set to be released, including details of their crimes. One terrorist who will be released at the behest of the Obama administration murdered an elderly Holocaust survivor with an axe as part of an initiation rite for joining a terrorist group.
The full exchange is below:
Q: Now, in terms of the—in terms of the prisoners—in terms of the prisoner release, this is—hasn't actually happened yet. It's not supposed to happen until tonight. But you do think it's a good thing, yeah?
MS. HARF: Mmm hmm. Yes.
Q: Even though it's a hypothetical—
MS. HARF: Same place I was—
Q: —because it hasn't happened yet.
MS. HARF: Well, it's something that they have approved, that's in the -- that's in the pipeline.
Q: But that hasn't happened yet.
MS. HARF: I don't know where we are in the process, but yes, it's something that's been approved by the Israeli Cabinet.
Q: So you're prepared to go ahead and say it's hypothetical thing—
MS. HARF: Well, it's not a hypothetical because it's a step—
Q: It is a hypothetical because it hasn't happened.
MS. HARF: —it's been approved by the Israeli government.
Q: Is hasn't happened yet.
MS. HARF: OK, but it's a step that's been approved.
Q: OK. I just want you to remember this conversation because we're going to have it over—
MS. HARF: I remember all of our conversations, Matt.
Q: —over—we're going to have it over a different issue maybe even later in this briefing—not—
MS. HARF: Understood.
MS. HARF: It's not a hypothetical policy decision. The policy decision has been made and it's being implemented as we speak.
Q: All right. OK. All right, that's fine. Do you have any thoughts or position on whether these people who are going to be released—this hypothetical release—are political prisoners or are they terrorists?
MS. HARF: I do not have a position on that.
Q: Do you object to the Palestinians referring to them as political prisoners?
MS. HARF: I don't have a position on that. I'm happy to look into it and if I have something to share I can.
Q: Can you?
MS. HARF: I can.
Q: Can you find maybe—because this is big bone of contention. The—I mean, most of these people have been convicted of murder, of killing people. And the Israelis are very clear on the fact that they think that these people are terrorists, even though they're releasing them. The Palestinians say that they are political prisoners and I—and they have instructed their ambassadors, all their representatives around the world to refer to them as freedom fighters, political prisoners. And I want to know, if you don't have a position, on what they—
MS. HARF: On what we call them.
Q: —on what—if there isn't anything that you call them, do you object to the Palestinians referring to them as freedom fighters?
MS. HARF: The answer is, I don't know and I will endeavor to get an answer for you on that as well. I think I would—I would make the point that this clearly a difficult step for the Israeli government to take, but that it did show that they are putting some trust in the Palestinian Authority, investing in the PA's success and that we do think it's a positive step. But in terms of terminology, I will look into that and see what I can do.