Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Israel released 151 Palestinian prisoners early Friday, a week later than scheduled becaue of a dispute involving the list of prisoners to be freed.
The release was among the commitments Israel made during last month's peace summit at Sharm el-Sheik in Egypt.
Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat welcomed the development, saying from Japan that it represented progress in the peace process. And since it was a step toward peace, Arafat added, the PA would continue to work for the release of many more Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.
That may not be easy. Israel had a tough time coming up with a list of 151 prisoners who met criteria established by the Knesset. At one point, those criteria were altered to allow the release of convicts who had wounded Israelis in terror attacks and those from groups hostile to the Oslo peace process.
Of the 151 released, 44 prisoners had "lightly" wounded Israelis. Another 38 killed fellow Palestinians who were thought to be "collaborators" with Israel.
Those freed also included at least 10 members of the Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hizb'Allah groups, which reject talks with Israel. Forty-two prisoners from Arab countries, including Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan and Libya - all countries with no diplomatic relations with Israel - as well as from Jordan and Egypt, were also freed.
Each prisoner had to sign an agreement not to engage in further terror attacks. Except for the foreigners, who will be returned to their countries, they were all released at checkpoint entrances to the PA-ruled areas.
A dispute over more than 40 prisoners on the original list prevented the release on time last week. According to the Prisons Authority only 17 names were changed on that list.
The Palestinians had accused Israel of submitting names of prisoners who had only a few months left to serve.
But Israel had claimed there were not enough prisoners who had no Israeli "blood on their hands."
"In these negotiations, all the time there is a compromise," PA Cabinet Minister Ahmed Abdel Rachman, told CNSNews.com.
Opposition Likud Party Chairman, Ariel Sharon called the release a "big mistake" and "another sign of weakness" because Israel got nothing in return, he said.
"From the security point of view and from the moral point of view it's a major mistake because the Palestinians agreed in the past that murderers would not be released," he told Israel radio.
The release of so-called "security prisoners" was first agreed to by Sharon himself and former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu last year at the signing of the Wye River Memorandum.
It was the signing of that agreement that precipitated the fall of Netanyahu's government and prompted early general elections last spring. But Sharon defended the deal.
"At Wye we made it very clear that no members of the Islamic Jihad, no Hamas people and no murderers will be released," Sharon said. He added that they had not made a "distinction" between those who murdered and those who attempted to murder.
As part of Prime Minister Ehud Barak's push to get negotiations going with the PA, he has attempted to fulfill outstanding pledges made to the PA in former agreements.
Since the signing of the Sharm el-Sheik accord on September 4, Israel has freed 350 security prisoners, agreed to the opening of a sea port in Gaza, ceded civilian control over a further seven per cent of the disputed territories to the PA and reopened permanent status negotiations.
A "safe passage" route for Palestinians to travel between Gaza and the southern West Bank is due to open on Sunday. PA sources say some 500 Palestinians have already applied for permission to use the corridor.