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Hostages’ Plea to Israel: Free Shias : Jerusalem Says It Will Stick to Own Timetable

Times Staff Writer

Top Israeli officials said Thursday that they will proceed with their plans to release 766 mostly Shia Muslim prisoners held in northern Israel on an unspecified schedule to be determined by the security situation in southern Lebanon and without regard to developments in the TWA hijacking.

One government source, who requested anonymity, said that if the stalemate in Beirut continues for a long time, it is possible that some of the Shias will be freed before the 40 hostages in the TWA incident are released.

Despite such comments, there was no indication here Thursday that any prisoner release is imminent. The comments appeared to be part of Israel’s continuing effort to avoid direct involvement in the affair and thus limit the diplomatic damage it might suffer, depending on how the incident is resolved.

‘He’s Not That Stupid’

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Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin “won’t wake up tomorrow morning and release 300 people,” one senior defense source said. “He’s not that stupid. He could have done it before (the hijacking), maybe, but now he cannot do it.”

The Israeli officials spoke in an atmosphere of growing frustration here over what some consider to be hypocrisy by the Reagan Administration in its handling of the crisis.

Washington has publicly insisted that it will not give in to terrorism and that it will not ask anyone else to do so. Yet privately, according to Israeli sources, Administration officials are letting it be known that they think Israel should free the imprisoned Shias, as demanded by the air pirates who seized the plane and still hold 40 Americans.

In an unusual outburst in an interview on ABC-TV’s “Night-line” program, conducted early Thursday morning Israeli time, Rabin urged, “Let’s not play games.”

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Speaking as if he were addressing the Reagan Administration, he asked rhetorically: “What do you expect Israel to do? You say, ‘We are not to give in to the demands of terrorism. We’re not going to give in to any blackmail. But we want you to do so, even without asking you to do so.’ ”

Later, Rabin prodded the Administration further: “I’ve never tried to avoid responsibility. I’ve never shrugged off my shoulders the need to make a decision, as a prime minister and now as a defense minister, facing terror acts against Israelis. I expect the United States to do the same.”

A full text of Rabin’s “Nightline” interview was distributed by the Israeli government press office.

The Jerusalem Post on Thursday accused Washington of playing “a strange game with its Israeli ally in the TWA hijacking case.” The United States, it said, should “stop standing on idle ceremony” and “deign to dirty its own hands in the foul waters of compromise. . . . The time will come later for concerting a new, credible joint strategy in the fight against terrorism.”

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Columnist Gideon Samet, writing in the independent Haaretz newspaper, said: “This is a situation without precedent in the close friendship between Israel and the U.S. It’s as though the U.S. were trying to hitch a free ride on Israel’s inferior standing in the hijacking.”

Samet concluded: “If in fact these two friends have no course whereby to act with force, then the display of weakness at least needs to be equally divided between them: the one makes the request and the other accedes to the act of capitulation to the terrorists.”

The Shia prisoners held in northern Israel were among about 1,200 Lebanese transferred here last April when the withdrawing Israeli army tore down its southern Lebanon prison camp at Ansar. Most of the prisoners were captured during so-called “Operation Iron Fist"--retaliatory raids on Shia Muslim villages whose residents were suspected of participating in guerrilla attacks against Israeli soldiers.

The prisoners’ transfer to Israel was criticized by the United States and the International Red Cross, among others, as a violation of Geneva conventions regarding treatment of civilians in occupied territory.

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Israel denied any wrongdoing, saying that the move was intended to protect the prisoners as well as its own soldiers. And it stressed that those transferred would be kept at Atlit prison, south of Haifa, only temporarily, until the security situation in southern Lebanon merited their release.

Nearly 500 of the transferred prisoners were freed in two earlier releases and more than 300 others were to have been set free earlier this month before unspecified security considerations postponed the action.

“We stick to the policy that we have decided about in the beginning of April--that those that were brought here to Israel have been brought on a temporary basis,” Rabin reiterated to reporters Thursday. “They will be released in relation to the process of evacuation of the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) from Lebanon and the developments in the security conditions in southern Lebanon.”

Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir said the same thing in an interview Thursday with German television, adding that any releases will be unrelated to the hijacking. He said he does not believe that the Reagan Adminstration will ask Israel to release the Shias in exchange for the TWA hostages.

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