21 Female Palestinian Inmates Refuse Freedom : Mideast: The prisoners act in solidarity with four women whose release was blocked by Israeli authorities.


The Israeli-Palestinian peace accord ran into further complications Sunday when 21 female Palestinian prisoners rejected freedom in solidarity with four others who had been denied release.

The women who were to have been released Sunday morning under last month's peace agreement announced to Israeli authorities that they would not sign a declaration renouncing terrorism--a requirement of their liberty--unless all of the Palestinian women were freed.

Israeli officials responded that no one would be forced to leave the prison and returned the women to their cells, at least until Tuesday, after the first day of the seven-day Jewish Sukkot festival.

The women hung the flag of the Palestine Liberation Organization from their cells. PLO leader Yasser Arafat announced that he will send a delegation to Sharon Prison in central Israel on Tuesday to try to persuade the women to leave.

One Palestinian who had been jailed apart from the other women did sign the commitment to refrain from terrorist attacks and was freed, but when she arrived home to East Jerusalem, Bashayer abu Laban said that she too would have stayed behind bars had she known the rest of the women were doing so.

Under the interim peace accord signed in Washington on Sept. 28, all female Palestinian prisoners are to be released along with men who have completed two-thirds of their terms and prisoners who are younger than 18, older than 50 or ill.

The women were to be freed first. But last week, Israeli President Ezer Weizman announced that despite the accord, he would not pardon two of the women, who he said had "blood on their hands." Israeli Gen. Ilan Biran, chief of the army's central command, then reportedly refused to allow the release of two others also involved in the murder of Israelis.

It was unclear whether about 1,100 Palestinian men scheduled to be released Tuesday will take a stand similar to the women's.

Israeli Police Minister Moshe Shahal said that any prisoner who refuses to sign the vow against further violence will not be released.

PLO officials have called the government's refusal to release the four women a grave violation of the peace accord, but they have not made the women's freedom a condition for continuing the implementation of the accord.

The issue of the prisoner release is extremely sensitive for both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israelis view the prisoners as criminals determined to annihilate Jews, and they fear that they will resume attacks when they are released. Palestinians view them as political prisoners and soldiers who fought in the battle for a homeland.

Security is the prime issue for Israelis in the peace process. They worry that Palestinian terrorists will continue to attack them and flee to havens in Palestinian-controlled territory.

The Israeli government has closed off the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip and the West Bank until the end of the Sukkot holiday, fearing another attack by Islamic extremists opposed to the peace accord. Eight suicide bus bombers have killed dozens of Israelis since the original peace accord was signed two years ago.

Israeli and Palestinian military officials, meanwhile, met at the Erez checkpoint entering the Gaza Strip on Sunday to discuss details of the Israeli troop pullout from Palestinian cities in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the arrival of Palestinian police to take their place.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said early Sunday after a meeting with Arafat that Israel will withdraw troops and close administrative offices in four Arab villages within two weeks--a symbolic gesture clearly meant to show the Palestinian public that West Bank redeployment will happen.

Palestinian officials said, however, that they were disappointed to learn from Peres that soldiers will not leave the first West Bank city, Janin, until Nov. 2. They had expected the pullout to begin earlier.

Redeployment from six West Bank cities is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

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