Israel lists 342 prisoners to be freed soon

Palestinians criticize number as far too few


JERUSALEM - Israel published the names yesterday of nearly 350 Palestinian prisoners to be freed soon, in a move intended to improve the atmosphere for peace negotiations, but the list brought only cries of complaint from Palestinians.

The peace plan does not require Israel to free prisoners. But Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has made releasing Palestinians jailed by the Israelis a top priority, and Israel says it wants to strengthen Abbas' position.

Instead of nudging the negotiations forward, though, the prisoner issue has become a leading point of contention. Palestinians say the Israelis are giving far too little, and some rightist Israelis accuse their government of giving too much.

Israeli news organizations gave conflicting reports last night as to whether Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would meet tomorrow, when prisoner releases are expected to begin.

Violence is down, but progress on the peace plan is moving slowly.

Palestinian factions are threatening to call off a truce, declared more than a month ago, if Israel does not make a series of concessions.

In turn, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Israel would not withdraw troops from additional Palestinian cities in the West Bank until Palestinians acted against those involved in attacks against Israelis. He spoke after a shooting that seriously wounded an Israeli woman driving near Bethlehem on Sunday night. Her three children in the car also were wounded.

The Palestinians are demanding freedom for all or most of the estimated 6,000 prisoners held by Israel.

"What is this?" Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said in response to the Israeli announcement. "Is this deception?" Other Palestinian officials were equally critical.

The list published by Israel's Prisons Service identified 342 prisoners to be released. About 100 more prisoners are expected to be freed soon, though they were not listed.

The total is still about 100 short of the 540 prisoners that Israel had said would be freed. Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon, said that judicial and security review boards had blocked some releases, and that other prisoners had finished their sentences in recent days and had been let go.

Those scheduled for release have been held without charge or been convicted of relatively minor offenses like incitement, throwing stones or being in Israel illegally. Many were to finish their sentences before the end of the year.

Sharon has repeatedly emphasized that the government will not release Palestinians believed to have been involved in violence. A statement by the Prisons Service said those being freed did not have "blood on their hands."

Still, the planned releases have stirred criticism from some Israeli rightists. "The release of prisoners, in my opinion, is shooting ourselves in the foot," said Yuval Steinitz, a prominent legislator from Sharon's Likud Party.

Steinitz said the Palestinians were not dismantling militant groups as called for in the peace plan. "We see a strengthening, rehabilitation and building of the terror infrastructure," he said.

Israel has released about 250 Palestinian prisoners in recent weeks and said the process can continue if the Palestinians work to prevent attacks.

Israel also continues to make arrests. The government announced yesterday that it had seized two Arab residents of East Jerusalem on suspicion that they had assisted two suicide bombers.

Also yesterday, Israeli soldiers fatally shot a Palestinian who was planting a bomb along a road used by troops near the West Bank town of Tulkarm, the Israeli military said.

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