ISRAEL offered the Palestinians the first tangible fruits of peace yesterday, releasing about 660 prisoners from jail.
But they represented only 5 percent of all Palestinian detainees, and both Israeli and Palestinian negotiators say much difficult work remains to be done before their skeleton peace accord becomes a reality.
Though officials had earlier said more prisoners would be freed, the number was reduced by a last-minute government decision not to include any members of Hamas or Islamic Jihad, two radical Muslim groups that have pledged to sabotage the peace process. Hamas militants kidnapped and killed two Israeli soldiers in Gaza on Sunday.
All those freed yesterday fell into one of four categories agreed on last week between Palestinian and Israeli officials negotiating details of the peace accord. They were either women, sick, under 18, or over 50, and almost all of them had been convicted of minor offenses, government officials said.
That meant that the prisoner release would improve, not endanger, Israeli security, they argued. ``Freeing prisoners who belong to organizations that support the peace process will enhance support for the peace process,'' says Gen. Efraim Sneh, formerly government coordinator of the West Bank, and now a Labor Knesset member.
``Its effect will be very positive and may contribute to stability in the [occupied] territories,'' he adds.
Palestinians, while welcoming this first Israeli gesture, had hoped more of their detainees would be freed. An estimated 12,000 Palestinians are in jail, the majority held on relatively minor charges for nonviolent offenses.
The Israeli authorities, however, say they will consider freeing more prisoners only if there is progress in negotiations currently under way in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba, to settle practical details of the ``Gaza and Jericho first'' plan offering Palestinians in the occupied territories limited self-rule.
``We'll be looking at the release of prisoners according to the degree of progress,'' says Jacques Neriah, an Israeli negotiator. ``The discussions will be gradual.''
``The issue of prisoners is not completely out of the context of the negotiations,'' adds Col. Ami Gluska, spokesman for the Israeli team at Taba. ``It is linked to, though I would not say conditioned by, progress in the overall negotiations'' on how Israeli forces withdraw from Gaza and Jericho.
Some Palestinians see this as a trap. The Israeli position ``translates into their releasing prisoners if we accept their terms'' on the withdrawal, complains Ghassan al-Khatib, a leading Palestinian peace negotiator. ``And if we don't agree to their terms, there'll be no prisoners.'' Prisoner releases are a major issue
This is a major handicap, Mr. Khatib worries, ``because prisoner releases are our weakest point; it's an emotional question and our public is putting a lot of pressure on us about it.''
Certainly the Israelis are expecting Palestinian concessions. ``The negotiation is not just a perpetual festival of Israeli gestures,'' insists General Sneh. ``It's based on give and take, and in this case, give and take means they accept our terms as far as security arrangements are concerned.''
Those arrangements are proving the hardest nut to crack, as Israeli negotiators demand a much greater military presence in Gaza and Jericho than the Palestinians say they can accept.
``Unfortunately the gaps [between the Israeli and Palestinian positions] are very, very wide at this time,'' according to Colonel Gluska. ``The biggest difficulty is in interpreting the declaration of principles [negotiated secretly in Oslo] as regards the continued presence of Israeli forces.''
``The main problem is that Israel reserves the right to chase any Palestinian who attacks an Israeli into any part of Gaza or Jericho,'' Khatib says. ``We say that withdrawal means withdrawal.''
Other questions are likely to pose problems as negotiators strive to meet a Dec. 13 deadline for agreement. They include the size of the autonomous area centered on the West Bank town of Jericho, the size of the projected Palestinian police force, and control over border posts.
But on both sides of the negotiating table ``there is a feeling that we are in the midst of a process that is bound to lead to an agreement eventually,'' Mr. Neriah says.
The Israelis worry that this sense of inevitability might prompt the Palestinians to make unacceptable demands. ``It would be a mistake for them to think that we would sign any agreement however bad it is,'' Sneh argues.
The Palestinians, on the other hand, worry that the certainty of an accord works against them. ``Israel will benefit,'' Khatib says, ``because [Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser] Arafat cannot afford a failure. He is in a weak position, and is at the mercy of the other side.''