Palestinian self-rule progresses but not without some hitches

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

JERUSALEM — Israel began putting into effect its latest Palestinian peace accord this week, freeing close to 900 Palestinian prisoners and transferring four civil administration offices in the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority.

But like much of the peace process, the first steps toward expanding Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank were rocky.

The interim agreement, which calls for the phased release of most Palestinians in Israeli jails and for the immediate release of all female prisoners, ran into a snag this week when President Ezer Weizman said he would refuse to shorten the sentences of two of the 27 female prisoners scheduled for release.

Weizman, who has been pondering the release issue for at least two weeks, said Sunday that he would adhere to an earlier pledge not to let any prisoner with Israeli blood on his or her hands go free.

Two other female prisoners were refused release this week by Maj. Gen. Ilan Biran, the commander in charge of an area that includes the West Bank.

Israel's refusal to release the four women prompted Ahmed Tibi, an adviser to Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, to petition Israel's High Court of Justice.

Tibi argued that since the release of all female prisoners was part of the interim agreement, Weizman had acted beyond his authority in refusing to pardon two of the female inmates.

As a result of the dispute, 22 female prisoners eligible for release vowed to stay in jail until the four who were denied their freedom were also freed. A 23rd female prisoner went free, reportedly because she was in isolation and did not know about the protest. She had been sentenced to seven years in jail for attempting to stab an Israeli soldier.

Of the 900 Palestinian prisoners released Tuesday, some 500 had been convicted of committing security offenses against Israel.

The security prisoners were set free after signing pledges that they would refrain from future terrorist activities.

Similarly, prisoners who had been jailed for criminal offenses were freed after they signed pledges that they would not take part in any further criminal activities.

The releases were delayed by several hours Tuesday, after Palestinians officials demanded that the former criminals be handed over directly to the Palestinian Authority.

Hisham Abdel Razek, a Palestinian negotiator on the prisoner issue, said Palestinian officials had wanted to review their files to decide whether they should be set free or be put in PLO-run jails.

Though they were free to go, some 84 former criminals remained in jail Wednesday after no Palestinian Authority official came to pick them up, Army Radio reported.

Meanwhile, Israeli officials on Wednesday turned over three civil administration buildings in the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority.

The transfer of the buildings in the villages of Hirbata, Yata and Kabatyah came a day after Israel transferred to the Palestinians an administration building in the West Bank village of Salfit.

As Israeli troops left the three facilities for the last time Wednesday, local residents put up Palestinian flags and pictures of Arafat.

Meanwhile, Israel allowed three leaders of the PLO's mainstream Al Fatah movement who were responsible for dozens of terrorist attacks in the past to enter the West Bank.

The three were expected to take up governing positions in the West Bank towns of Tulkarm, Nablus and Ramallah. The three cities are among the Arab population centers to come under Palestinian self-rule.

Israeli opposition leaders denounced the move as the Likud Party launched a campaign against the interim agreement at the West Bank settlement of Efrat.

The Likud protest Wednesday, which drew more than 1,500 supporters, was aimed at stressing the importance of Efrat and other settlements in the Gush Etzion bloc as an integral part of Israel and as a southern defense for Jerusalem.

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu said that opposition to the agreement must be within the framework of the law. He denounced right-wing supporters who had jeered Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at an annual gathering of Israel's English-speaking immigrant population on Tuesday.

Rabin, confronted by continued shouts and booing at the Netanya event, reportedly had left the stage in a rage after 10 minutes.

"We cannot condone physical attacks against Cabinet ministers or representatives of the government," Netanyahu told his audience in Efrat. "We have to express ourselves in the ballot box, not through violence."