JERUSALEM - Israel said yesterday that it would free 170 jailed Palestinians in a gesture of gratitude for Egypt's release two weeks ago of an Israeli Arab imprisoned for spying.
It would be the first sizable release of Palestinian prisoners in nearly a year and is intended to be seen as a conciliatory move toward the interim Palestinian leadership after the death last month of Yasser Arafat.
The prisoners would likely be freed next week, according to Israeli news reports.
Palestinian officials received the news with skepticism, saying previous releases by Israel have involved prisoners near the end of their sentences who for the most part were ordinary criminals rather than those jailed for political involvement.
"It would be useful to make these kinds of initiatives after dialogue and discussion with our side," said Kadoura Fares, a Palestinian Cabinet member and lawmaker.
Israeli officials did not identify the prisoners to be released but said none were involved in violent attacks against Israelis. Most were militants affiliated with Fatah, the dominant faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Israeli media reported.
Israeli leaders decided against releasing members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, according to the media reports.
In a statement, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called yesterday's move "a gesture of good will, friendship and gratitude" to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Two weeks ago, Mubarak freed Azzam Azzam, an Israeli citizen convicted in 1997 by Egypt of espionage - charges that he and Israel steadfastly denied. In exchange, Israel released six Egyptian students suspected of plotting attacks inside Israel and promised to free Palestinian prisoners.
The planned release affects a relatively small portion of the more than 7,000 Palestinians held by Israel. Most of those approved for release are so-called security prisoners, while about 50 were arrested for entering Israel without permits, according to Israel Radio.
Israel has released prisoners from time to time, either as good will gestures or as part of negotiated deals.
In January, Israel freed more than 400 Palestinians and turned over the bodies of 59 Lebanese fighters in an exchange with the militant Hezbollah group. In return, Israel received the remains of three soldiers who went missing during fighting along the Lebanon border in 2000 and won release of an Israeli businessman held by Hezbollah for more than three years.
Israel set free scores of Palestinian prisoners while Mahmoud Abbas was Palestinian prime minister last year, but Palestinian officials complained that most of the prisoners were near the end of their terms. Abbas quit after four months, partly in frustration over what he called empty gestures from Israel.
Abbas, newly named as PLO chairman, is favored to win election Jan. 9 as president of the Palestinian Authority. Israel sees him as a moderate and pragmatist and has vowed to withdraw soldiers and roadblocks from cities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to make for a smooth vote. Ranking officials from the two sides met yesterday to discuss security arrangements for voting day.
At the same time, Sharon's plan to bring the left-leaning Labor Party into his government ran into snags yesterday over granting a senior post to Labor's leader, Shimon Peres.
Under an agreement worked out between Sharon's conservative Likud Party and Labor, Peres was to be named to the Cabinet as vice premier, a stand-in for the prime minister. But the post is already occupied by Cabinet minister Ehud Olmert, and creation of a second position requires new legislation, Likud officials said.
Sharon says he needs Labor to prevent the collapse of his government and ensure Israel's planned withdrawal next year of Jewish settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip and a portion of the West Bank.
Despite a two-day Israeli military offensive in the southern Gaza Strip that left 11 Palestinians dead and more than 30 others wounded, Palestinian militants continued to fire rockets at Israeli targets. Early yesterday, a volley landed in the town of Sederot, in southern Israel, injuring two Israeli civilians.
The town sits near the northern border of the Gaza Strip and is a frequent target of Palestinian rocket strikes.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.