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Israel Releases 159 Palestinian Prisoners as Part of Deal with Egypt

Israel is released159 Palestinian prisoners Monday as a goodwill gesture to the new Palestinian leadership and to Egypt

Dozens of prisoners arrived at several drop-off points in the West Bank and Gaza Strip Monday morning to be greeted by eager relatives.

The releases are part of a deal with Egypt, which earlier this month released Azzam Azzam, an Israeli man who had served eight years in an Egyptian prison on spy charges. In exchange, Israel released six Egyptian students who had crossed the border illegally and were accused of planning to carry out attacks against Israel. Also as part of the deal, Israeli authorities agreed to release some Palestinian prisoners.

Israel holds an estimated 7,000 Palestinian prisoners and Monday's release is also intended as a goodwill gesture to the new interim Palestinian leadership, headed by former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

One of those released at the Beitunia checkpoint near the West Bank city of Ramallah, gave his name only as Abdullah. He said he hoped more prisoners will be released in the future.

He said the Palestinian leadership must keep up the pressure on the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to release more Palestinian prisoners.

Another prisoner, Hussein, said many more Palestinians are suffering in Israeli jails. He said they too should be released.

There is definitely pressure on Mahmoud Abbas to make the release of prisoners a central issue with the Israelis. Mr. Abbas is favored to win in the January 9 elections to succeed Yasser Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority. He kicked off his campaign, calling on Israel to release all Palestinian prisoners, including prominent militant leader Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life sentences on charges of terrorism.

Among the prisoners are around 50 illegal residents and the rest are inmates whose prison terms were almost up and who do not have "blood on their hands," meaning they were not involved in attacks against Israelis.