680 Palestinian Prisoners Are Freed As Israel Mourns 2 Slain Reservists

Israel has released 680 Palestinian prisoners on schedule, despite the brutal murder the day before of two Israeli soldiers by Islamic fundamentalists in the Gaza Strip.

The prisoner release, which reportedly included 400 residents of the West Bank and 280 residents of the Gaza Strip, took place Monday in accordance with the agreement reached last week between delegations of Israeli and Palestine Liberation Organization officials in the Sinai border town of Taba.

The release occurred the same day that the two Israel Defense Force reservists, who were killed on Sunday, were buried in their hometowns.

Sgt. Maj. Ehud Roth, 35, was buried in the graveyard of Kibbutz Hatzerim in the Negev. Cpl. Ilan Levy, 23, was buried in Dimona.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, visiting Washington on Monday for a meeting with President Clinton, praised Israel for allowing the prisoners to be released despite the provocative acts of Arab rejectionists.

“I think it’s a very good act,” he said. “It’s a very good step forward.”

Bitterness and anger were expressed by right-wing nationalists at the coincidence of the burial of the reservists and the freeing of the Palestinian prisoners, which Israel performed as a goodwill gesture following the Sept. 13 signing of the Israel-PLO agreement in Washington.

The two reservists had come off weekend duty in the Gush Katif settlement area at the southern end of the Gaza Strip early Sunday.

According to a witness who saw them hitchhiking, the soldiers flagged down a yellow Subaru station wagon with Israeli license plates. The car was driven by what appeared to be two kipahwearing religious Jews.

But the two men in the front seat turned out to be Hamas gunmen waiting to entrap soldiers.

A ‘GIFT’ FROM HAMAS

According to the area army commander, the vehicle drove some miles before turning toward the Gaza Strip town of Khan Yunis. The gunmen turned around, pulled out pistols and shot Roth and Levy in their heads at point-blank range.

Their bodies were dumped at the side of the road after the soldiers’ boots and shirts were removed. The soldiers’ M-16 rifles were stolen.

The car was driven on few hundred yards before being abandoned.

A handwritten note in Arabic, signed by the Hamas organization, taunted Rabin and Gaza area Brig. Gen. Yomtov Samiah, claiming that the double murder was Hamas’ “gift to the peace process.”

The note added that the soldiers had been killed in response to a recent IDF killing of four Hamas members.

The Subaru used in the kidnap-murder was found to have been stolen a month earlier from its Jewish owner in the town of Gan Yavne, which is north of Gaza, near Ashdod.

The prisoner release also took place the same day a car-bomb attack was foiled in Gaza.

A member of the Hamas movement rammed a Peugeot loaded with explosives into the cars of Israeli civil administration employees, lightly injuring two.

The terrorist was shot as he tried to flee. He was arrested, and the bombs were safely detonated.

Rabin responded to the attacks by saying the stepped-up campaign of terror by rejectionist Arab groups was to be expected and must be fought for the sake of peace.

LACK OF PLO RESPONSE PROTESTED

Rabin defended the PLO’s failure to condemn the killings, saying the group has abided by its commitment to renounce terrorism.

But the PLO’s lack of a response to the attacks has elicited strong criticism in some quarters here.

“What message do the perpetrators of the hideous murders (of) two Israeli soldiers receive when they see the Israeli government releasing people who perpetrated similar crimes?” asked Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the opposition Likud party. “They know that it’s OK.”

Not all the criticism came from the opposition, however.

Communications Minister Shulamit Aloni — a member of the Meretz bloc, which is part of the governing coalition — said she believes Israel is in a position to demand PLO condemnation.

According to Israel Radio, Aloni said an entity aspiring to have its own state must denounce terror as well as renounce it.

Four petitions, meanwhile, have been filed with the High Court of Justice charging that the prisoner release is illegal, motivated by political pressure and that it threatens the security of Israelis.

The right-wing Tsomet party has called for the publication of the charge sheet of each of the prisoners, claiming that the public has a right to know why they were detained and on what basis they were released.

The prisoners were released Monday from about a dozen different detention centers in Israel and the territories. They were either women, in poor health, under the age of 18, or older than 50.

All had been serving relatively short sentences, and none had been jailed for violent crimes in which Israelis or Palestinians were killed or seriously injured.

Members of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad who were scheduled to be released were detained in prison following the murders Sunday. Palestinians in the West Bank held a general strike Monday calling for the release of all prisoners.

Israeli leaders have pledged that no one with blood on his hands would be freed, at least “not in the near future,” Rabin said.

Some 500 to 600 prisoners reportedly fit into this category.

Palestinian delegates to the autonomy talks were expected to raise the issue at the resumption of the talks in Taba this week.

(Contributing to this report was JTA correspondent Hugh Orgel in Tel Aviv.)

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