Israel released 31 Arab prisoners in southern Lebanon today amid signs of some internal political bickering over the handling of the TWA airline hijacking case and the first public calls to free all of the prisoners held by Israel rather than risk a serious deterioration in U.S.-Israeli relations.
The 31 prisoners are among more than 700 being held at the Atlit Prison south of Haifa whose release is being demanded by the hijackers. The 31 were taken in three Israeli Army trucks this morning to southern Lebanon, where they were turned over to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The prisoner release, the first since the TWA aircraft was hijacked on June 14, was approved Friday by Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, provoking a mixed reaction here that appeared to cross party lines in the national-unity government.
Israel's main concern now appears to be to prevent the hijacking case from souring relations with the United States, a goal on which Prime Minister Shimon Peres, of the Labor Party, and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir were said to be united. Shamir is leader of the right-wing Likud bloc that forms half of the government.
Peres and Rabin both used appearances on U.S. television interview programs Sunday to express sympathy for the plight of the TWA hostages and solidarity with the policy of the Reagan administration in not giving in to the hijackers' demands.
These television interviews appeared in part an attempt to smooth over the impression left by Rabin, who, in an earlier U.S. television interview last week, snapped that the United States should not "play games" with Israel but come out publicly and ask for release of all the prisoners if that is what it wants.
Israeli Radio quoted Rabin as saying tonight that the hijacking had already strained the U.S.-Israeli relationship, while concern over ties to the United States prompted The Jerusalem Post to call today for the outright release of the prisoners being sought by the hijackers.
"If anything should happen to the hostages while Israel maintains what strikes many Americans as an unreasonably obdurate stance, the consequences for this country could be calamitous," the left-of-center newspaper said in an editorial.
It urged the government here to "cut the Gordian knot and simply let all the Atlit prisoners go at once -- if for no other reason than that it would please the U.S., Israel's great friend and ally, and in the final analysis its partner in the fight against terrorism."
A similar view was expressed by Yoel Marcus, an influential columnist for the independent newspaper Haaretz, who argued that if releasing the prisoners led to freedom for the American hostages, "we will gain American sympathy," and that if it did not "at least we will know that we did our share and now it is really an American problem."
This is still clearly a minority view here, although Deputy Prime Minister David Levy of Likud appeared to break ranks with other senior officials today by urging that Israel take the initiative and approach the Reagan administration on what should be done next in the hijack drama.
Peres, Rabin and Shamir have said repeatedly that deciding how to handle the hijacking case was up to the Reagan administration and that Israel would be responsive to U.S. requests but offer no advice.
"If the Americans don't want to give in, Israel should not give in" by releasing the prisoners, a senior aide to Peres said today. "There are major American interests at stake in this."
Despite the concern over the impact of the hijacking case on Israel's standing in U.S. public opinion, another official said that reports from the Israeli Embassy in Washington suggested that this was not a major factor over which policy makers here should worry.
"I think there is no damage done at this point to Israel in the United States," the official said. "There is no resentment against Israel. The resentment is directed against the terrorists." He added, "There is a controversy, but not an anti-Israel wave. There is no anger directed at Israel."
The official also said that the release of the 31 prisoners today could be interpreted as a gesture to the United States "to help maintain this image of an Israel who is willing to help."
When the Cabinet was informed yesterday of Rabin's decision to release the 31 prisoners, Ariel Sharon and Moshe Arens, both former defense ministers from the Likud bloc, reportedly raised strong objections.
But a senior aide to Shamir said today that Shamir did not object to the release, adding that the foreign minister's position in the hijack crisis was being "well coordinated" with Rabin and Peres.
However, there was criticism by junior Likud officials that the release of the 31 appeared to be a capitulation to terrorism and some grumbling was reported from unnamed Labor Party members of parliament.
At the moment, the hijacking does not appear to have created any serious new rifts in the government, which has staked its position on closing ranks with the United States in refusing to bend to the hijackers' demands.
"There is more potential strain than real strain now," said an aide to Peres. An official who is close to Shamir added:
"I don't think that on this specific issue a rift has developed between Labor and Likud. There might be differences among government ministers, but it is not according to party lines. There is nothing ideological about this."
Of the 31 who were released, nine were freed after a review by judicial panels here found no grounds to continue to hold them and the other 22 were let go after interrogation by Israeli security agencies reached the same conclusion. Defense Ministry officials identified 26 of the 31 released prisoners as Shiites and said the other five were Sunni Moslems.
According to the Israeli figures, there are still 735 prisoners at Atlit, the bulk of them Lebanese Shiite Moslems.
The Associated Press reported that none of the 31 released prisoners appeared to know about the TWA hijacking or the hijackers' demands for their release.
"We haven't read newspapers for two weeks," said Karim Sakmani, 20. "We didn't know we were being released until 7 a.m. this morning. It took us by surprise. They called out our names and a half-hour later we were out. I couldn't believe it."