Israel released 159 Palestinian prisoners today as a gesture to the new Palestinian leadership. Interim Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, the front-runner in Jan. 9 presidential...

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BEITUNIA CHECKPOINT, West Bank – Israel released 159 Palestinian prisoners today as a gesture to the new Palestinian leadership.

Interim Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, the front-runner in Jan. 9 presidential elections, welcomed the release but said Israel must free those sentenced to lengthy terms. Israel is holding some 7,000 Palestinians on security-related charges, and Abbas is under intense pressure to win their freedom.

The prisoners released Tuesday had no more than two years left in their sentences, and none were imprisoned for attacking Israelis. Dozens had been held for staying in Israel without entry permits.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he would seek final Cabinet approval to his Gaza Strip withdrawal plan by February, months ahead of schedule, officials said.

Lawmakers also quoted Sharon as saying Israel will use harsh force if Palestinian militants try to disrupt the pullout.

In the West Bank, Israeli troops killed a Palestinian fugitive, while a Hamas member died in Gaza in an accidental explosion.

Dozens of prisoners arrived this morning at drop-off points in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, some waving Palestinian flags and flashing victory signs.

The release was part of a deal with Egypt. On Dec. 5, Egypt freed Israeli Azzam Azzam after jailing him for eight years on spy charges. In exchange, Israel returned six Egyptian students accused of planning attacks on Israel and agreed to release Palestinian prisoners.

Israel has said today’s release also was meant as a gesture to the new Palestinian leadership, but it refuses to free Palestinians involved in attacks on Israelis.

In a weekend campaign speech, Abbas demanded that Israel release all Palestinian prisoners, including Marwan Barghouti, a promising uprising leader.

“In principle we work for every prisoner to be released, but what we are looking for is the release of those who have spent many long years in jail,” Abbas said shortly after the prisoners were freed.

Seventeen prisoners left a bus at the Beitunia checkpoint near Ramallah. One prisoner waved a Palestinian flag as the group rushed to hug, kiss and shake hands with waiting relatives.

Abdullah Hussein, 43, spent 11 months in the Ketziot military prison in southern Israel. He had five months left on his sentence for assisting the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, a militant group linked to the mainstream Fatah movement.

“We are not satisfied with this deal. My brothers gave me a message for Abu Mazen: that he should make the prisoners a top priority,” Hussein said. Abbas is widely known as Abu Mazen.

In Gaza, Ahmad Shaqoura, 24, said he had only 23 days left on a two-year term.

“It means nothing,” Shaqoura, a Fatah member, said of his early release.

An adviser to Sharon, Zalman Shoval, said the release indicated Israel’s warming relations with Egypt and the countries’ desire to coordinate a planned Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Today, Sharon told parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee he will ask his Cabinet for final approval to the Gaza plan in February, months ahead of an original June deadline, a senior official said on condition of anonymity.

Officials in Sharon’s office have said the early vote will not speed up the actual pullout but will allow for legal challenges and other preparations. The pullout is to begin in July and be completed within three months.

Meeting participants quoted Sharon as saying he was ready to use overwhelming force if militants tried to disrupt the withdrawal.

“As soon as there is fire, there will be severe retaliation,” committee member Shaul Yahalom said.

The pullout from Gaza and four West Bank settlements received a boost Sunday when residents of one small Gaza community, Peat Sadeh, agreed to leave their homes voluntarily in March and move to a nearby Israeli community.

Also today, Chinese State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan met with Palestinian officials in Ramallah, pledging $9 million in assistance. Tang called for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state “as soon as possible.”

Tang, the most senior Chinese official to visit in nearly five years, is to meet with Israeli officials, including Sharon, in the coming days.

In the West Bank city of Nablus, Israeli troops shot and killed an Al Aqsa fugitive, Wael Riyahi, as he tried to escape by car, the army said.

In Gaza, a Hamas member died when explosives he was handling detonated prematurely, Palestinian security officials said. Hamas said on its Web site that 22-year-old Mohammed Edwan was killed while “fulfilling a holy mission.”