KITSYOT, Israel, Oct 1 (Reuters) Israel began releasing dozens of jailed Palestinians today in a bid to shore up President Mahmoud Abbas against his Islamist rivals Hamas, and ahead of a US-sponsored conference on Palestinian statehood.
After several hours' delay, 57 prisoners were taken by bus out of the desert stockade of Kitsyot toward the West Bank, Israel's Prisons Service said. It said another inmate from the West Bank who had been scheduled for release was still being vetted.
Israel was scheduled to free 29 more prisoners from the Gaza Strip, but these were also held back at Kitsyot. Israeli officials cited a technical glitch. Israeli media said President Shimon Peres had not signed the necessary pardons in time.
The 87 men scheduled for release, all members of Abbas's embattled Fatah or smaller secular factions, had been serving sentences for attacks that did not kill Israelis. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said last week they would be required to forswear violence in writing.
''I hope there will be peace and quiet,'' one Gazan inmate told Reuters Television while waiting to leave Kitsyot.
The freeing of prisoners is highly emotive for Palestinians, who see their nearly 11,000 brethren held in Israeli jails as fighters against foreign occupation. Many Israelis argue that such amnesties encourage Palestinian militants to strike again.
Fatah lost control of Gaza in June to Hamas, which rejects peace efforts with Israel, including the West Asian conference planned for mid-to-late November under US auspices.
Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said Israel's prisoner releases ''aim to bolster internal Palestinian divisions and brighten the image of the occupation in world public opinion''.
Two Hamas gunmen were killed early today after attacking Israeli soldier on the Gaza boundary, Hamas said. An Israeli military spokesman said a soldier was lightly hurt in the clash.
COMMON GROUND Palestinians are divided on whether the conference will bring them closer to statehood. Olmert wants it to produce a broad-brush joint statement, while Abbas seeks an explicit ''framework'' agreement with a timeline for implementation.
It is unclear to what extent Olmert is prepared to meet Abbas's call to tackle ''final status'' issues key to establishing a Palestinian state: border-setting, the future of Jerusalem and the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees.
''These issues have been discussed (in the past) ... and I think the difference today is that these issues require decisions, and decisions are made by decision-makers,'' alestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Israel's Army Radio.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said the conference, which representatives of Arab states are also expected to attend, was ''preoccupying the entire world''. But she cautioned against any detailed agenda discussions in public.
''Our role, and that of the Palestinians, is to find the broadest possible common ground,'' Livni told Israel Radio.
''If there is something that harms negotiations, it is to let the other side get the idea before he even enters the room that he can get all sorts of things,'' she said. ''The idea is not only to make brave decisions, but also to negotiate wisely.'' Olmert has been weakened domestically since last year's war in Lebanon. Abbas has found his mandate effectively cut down to the Israeli-occupied West Bank since his schism with Hamas.
Abbas's office welcomed the planned prisoner release but said more needed to be done. The last such gesture by Israel was on July 20, when some 250 prisoners, most of them from Fatah, went free.
REUTERS SKB AS1628