- The Washington Times - Monday, December 27, 2004

BEITUNIA CHECKPOINT, West Bank — Israel released 159 Palestinian prisoners yesterday as a gesture to the new Palestinian leadership.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, the front-runner for Jan. 9 presidential elections, welcomed the release, but said Israel must free those sentenced to lengthy terms.

Israel is holding about 7,000 Palestinians on security-related charges, and Mr. Abbas is under intense pressure to win their freedom.

The prisoners released yesterday each had no more than two years left in their sentences, and none was imprisoned for attacking Israelis. Dozens had been held for staying in Israel without entry permits.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he would seek final Cabinet approval to his Gaza Strip withdrawal plan by February, months ahead of schedule, officials said.

Lawmakers also quoted Mr. Sharon as saying Israel will use harsh force if Palestinian militants try to disrupt the pullout.

In the West Bank, Israeli troops killed a Palestinian fugitive, and a Hamas member died in the Gaza Strip in an accidental explosion.

Dozens of prisoners arrived yesterday morning at drop-off points in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, some waving Palestinian flags and flashing victory signs.

The release was part of a deal with Egypt. On Dec. 5, Egypt freed Israeli Azzam Azzam after jailing him for eight years on spy charges. In exchange, Israel returned six Egyptian students accused of planning attacks on Israel and agreed to release Palestinian prisoners.

Israel has said yesterday’s release also was intended to be a gesture to the new Palestinian leadership, but it refuses to free Palestinians involved in attacks on Israelis.

In a weekend campaign speech, Mr. Abbas demanded that Israel release all Palestinian prisoners, including Marwan Barghouti, a high-profile leader in the Palestinian Authority.

“In principle, we work for every prisoner to be released, but what we are looking for is the release of those who have spent many long years in jail,” Mr. Abbas said shortly after the prisoners were freed.

Seventeen prisoners left a bus at the Beitunia checkpoint near Ramallah. One prisoner waved a Palestinian flag as the group rushed to hug, kiss and shake hands with waiting relatives.

Abdullah Hussein, 43, spent 11 months in the Ketziot military prison in southern Israel. He had five months left on his sentence for assisting the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militant group linked to the mainstream Fatah movement.

“We are not satisfied with this deal. My brothers gave me a message for [Mr. Abbas]: that he should make the prisoners a top priority,” Mr. Hussein said.

An adviser to Mr. Sharon, Zalman Shoval, said the release indicated Israel’s warming relations with Egypt and the countries’ desire to coordinate a planned Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Also yesterday, Mr. Sharon told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that he will ask his Cabinet for final approval to the Gaza withdrawal plan in February, months ahead of an original June deadline, a senior official said on the condition of anonymity.

Officials in Mr. Sharon’s office have said the early vote will not speed up the actual pullout, but will allow for legal challenges and other preparations. The pullout is to begin in July and be completed within three months.

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