JERUSALEM (AP) _ After months of negotiations, Israel released the first of 2,300 Palestinian prisoners Sunday: a curly-haired teen-ager who said she didn't regret trying to stab an Israeli soldier two years ago.

Twenty women prisoners also scheduled to be released Sunday stayed in jail to protest Israel's refusal to free four others.

Palestinian officials criticized Israel for violating the newly signed Israel-PLO agreement by not releasing the four. In the accord, signed Sept. 28 at the White House, Israel promised to release all female detainees in the first stage of a prisoner release.

But Israeli President Ezer Weizman decided against pardoning two women convicted of murder, and Maj. Gen Ilan Biran, head of the army central command, rejected the release of two others.

``It's a bad omen for the implementation of the whole agreement,'' Saeb Erekat, Palestinian municipal affairs minister, told The Associated Press. ``The agreement on this issue is black and white. Israel has no excuse whatsoever to stall.''

Hisham Abdul Razek, chief Palestinian negotiator on prisoners, said Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had personally promised the women's release when the two sides finalized the autonomy accord last month.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Saturday that the government had recommended all female prisoners be released, but Weizman and Biran had decided otherwise.

The Israel-PLO agreement also calls for an Israeli troop withdrawal from Palestinian towns in the West Bank, deployment of Palestinian police and Palestinian general elections.

The released prisoner, 18-year-old Bashayer Ali Abu Laben, said she had been in solitary confinement and did not know about the other women's decision to stay in prison.

``It was only when I got outside that my family told me,'' Abu Laben told The Associated Press. ``I felt terrible.''

Abu Laben, who was serving a seven-year sentence for attempting to stab a soldier two years ago in Jerusalem, said prison officials told her all the women prisoners were being released.

Surrounded by relatives at her family's home in east Jerusalem and with a black-and-white keffiyeh _ symbol of Palestinian nationalism _ wrapped around her shoulders, Abu Laben said of the attempted stabbing: ``I wouldn't do it again, but I'm not sorry. I did it for the Palestinian people.''

``I hope there will be peace for the Jewish and the Palestinian peoples,'' she added. ``And that all the prisoners will be released.''

Israel has promised to free 2,300 of the 5,000 Palestinians held in Israeli jails in three stages. The first stage was supposed to be ``on the signing'' of the agreement, and the second prior to Palestinian general elections.

Elections are expected to be held either in January or April, following the Israeli troop withdrawal and deployment of Palestinian police.

The third stage is to take place during negotiations on the final status of the Palestinian territories, which are supposed to begin by next May.

Also Sunday, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat ordered the release of a top leader of the militant Islamic group Hamas. The group, which has claimed responsibility for deadly suicide attacks against Israelis, is now negotiating an agreement to renounce violence and become a political party.

Mosque preacher Mahmoud Zahar, a spokesman for Hamas, had been jailed since Arafat's Palestinian Authority cracked down on Hamas in June following a suicide bombing near an Israeli settlement.

``I hope there will be a new era between the Palestinian Authority and all the (opposition) factions, including Hamas,'' Zahar told The Associated Press.

Hamas opposes the Israel-PLO peace process and seeks the establishment of a Muslim state.