The issue of Palestinians being held in Israeli jails proving to be an emotional stumbling block to

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JERUSALEM — When President Clinton visited the Gaza Strip this week, the issue of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails inevitably became a key item on his agenda.

Within a matter of weeks, the issue has risen quickly to the top of the list of Palestinian complaints against the Jewish state, in the wake of a groundswell of popular discontent throughout the self-rule areas.

Just before Clinton was to address members of the Palestine National Council, the Palestinian Authority arranged for him to meet four children of Palestinian security prisoners.

One sobbing girl begged the president to help obtain the release of her father before the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which begins next week. Her father is serving a life sentence for killing an Israeli.

"It was a particularly moving scene for me," said Sufian Abu-Zeida, chairman of the Israeli desk in the Palestinian Authority, who had served 12 years in Israeli prisons himself. Abu-Zeida's son was 1 year old when his father was imprisoned.

Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright were also evidently moved. Albright was described as being on the verge of tears.

The president spoke of his own emotional reaction when he addressed the gathering of Palestinian representatives.

Referring to the Palestinian children — as well as the Israeli children orphaned by terror he had met the day before — Clinton said: "These children brought tears to my eyes. We have to find a way for both sets of children to get their lives back and go forward."

The president's comment — one of many he made to urge the pursuit of peace — provoked a controversy in Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was soon criticizing Clinton for equating the children of Palestinians jailed for murder with the children of Israeli victims of terror.

While the prisoner issue is one of several in the war of words that perpetually marks Israeli and Palestinian attempts at peacemaking, for the Palestinian side it is equivalent to Israeli sensitivity to prisoners of war or to retrieving the bodies of fallen Israeli soldiers left behind enemy lines.

While charges of continued Israeli settlement construction and land confiscations loom large in the Palestinian Authority's litany of complaints against the Jewish state, relatively few Palestinians are directly affected by these issues.

But there is hardly a Palestinian who does not know someone held in an Israeli jail.

In an effort to drive their plight home, thousands of Palestinian prisoners recently staged a hunger strike.

Under the terms of the Wye agreement, Israel agreed to release 750 prisoners in three stages by the end of January. When Israel recently freed the first group of 250, most were common criminals.

But the "heroes of Palestinian national struggle" were kept behind bars, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat said Monday in his address to the Palestinian representatives in Gaza.

It was with that first prisoner release that the hunger strike began, spreading from prison to prison.

Israel and the Palestinian Authority subsequently argued over the precise terms of the Wye accord.

Netanyahu repeatedly maintained that Israel made no commitment to release prisoners with blood on their hands — a point seconded by some American officials.

Palestinian officials saw things differently, demanding the release of some 600 prisoners who had been jailed before the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993.

Issa Karaka, chairman of the Palestinian Prisoners Club, insisted this week that only 250 prisoners actually had Israeli blood on their hands.

"Tell me," Arafat asked activists from his Fatah movement last week during a highly emotional gathering in Hebron, "does it make sense that I would have gone to Washington for lengthy negotiations just to release a few thieves?"

Along with the hunger strikes, the issue triggered a week of violent confrontations in the West Bank

between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli security forces. Four Palestinians died in the confrontations — including the nephew of Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat — and dozens more were wounded.

The confrontations, which lasted more than a week before the Palestinian Authority clamped down on them in anticipation of Clinton's arrival in the region Saturday, were soon dubbed the "prisoners' intifada" — a reference to the 1987 to 1993 Palestinian uprising in the territories.

The campaign was so well organized — with the hunger strikes in the prisons, youths taking to the streets and family members staging sit-ins — that Israel accused the Palestinian Authority of orchestrating it.

Indeed, it was on the basis of this accusation that Netanyahu recently announced he would suspend further implementation of the Wye accord until the Palestinian Authority clamped down on incitement.

At least some of the organization for the campaign came from within the prisons themselves.

Palestinian security prisoners are grouped in the prisons according to their political affiliations, with a paramilitary hierarchy. The commanders are not only responsible for prison life, but they often extend their authority to life beyond the barbed wire.

According to a recent Israeli security report, many of the recent Hamas terrorist attacks were planned and guided by senior Hamas prisoners.

The prisoners' intifada was of major concern to the Palestinian Authority, partly because the riots were also directed against the self-rule government for having failed to reach a better agreement regarding the releases during the Wye summit in late October.

Once the Palestinian Authority realized that it, along with Israel, was a potential target of the campaign, it joined the popular movement and "channeled the violence against us," according to Maj. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon, head of the Israel Defense Force's central command, which has responsibility for the West Bank.

It is true that in the past Israel has agreed to controversial prisoner releases. In 1985, thousands of prisoners "with blood on their hands" were freed in return for the release of several Israeli soldiers who were held by a terrorist group in Lebanon.

That exchange came back to haunt Israel, as many of the prisoners later engaged in new acts of terrorism.

Seen from this perspective, Netanyahu's government has been more sensitive about the issue than previous governments.

At the same time, the Palestinian Authority has a vested interest in calming the situation in the West Bank as soon as possible. It, too, is concerned that the riots will get out of control.

There was speculation this week about a possible compromise under which Israel would release a number of prisoners, perhaps on a case-by-case basis, in response to specific requests from the Palestinian Authority.

But there is at least one potential obstacle: Many of the prisoners are Hamas terrorists and activists. If the Palestinian Authority settles for the release of Fatah prisoners and neglects those belonging to Hamas, this may prove a prescription for further trouble.