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Israel to ease some West Bank curbs

Jerusalem, March 30, 2008

Israel announced plans on Sunday to ease some restrictions on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, responding to calls by visiting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to take steps to bolster peace talks.

A State Department document, issued after Rice held a three-way meeting in Jerusalem with Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, said Israel intended to remove about 50 of its roadblocks.

'I think it's a very good start,' Rice, on a three-day trip to the region ahead of a planned visit in May by US President  George W Bush, told reporters.

Israel has made similar pledges in the past but has not carried them out, Western officials said.

In a statement, Barak's office said Israel would scrap 50 'dirt mounds', which restrict Palestinian travel between major West Bank cities. But citing security concerns, Israel has balked at Palestinian demands to dismantle major checkpoints.

Long lines and strict security checks by Israeli soldiers have turned the checkpoints into hated symbols of occupation. Palestinians see them as a barrier to progress in talks that Washington hopes can achieve a peace deal by year's end.

Samir Abdallah, the Palestinian planning minister, said Israel's pledge to remove the dirt mounds did not go far enough, saying major checkpoints, choking the West Bank economy, must be taken down as well. 'These are small steps,' Abdallah said.

The Israeli measures included a promise to allow the construction of 5,000 to 8,000 Palestinian homes near Ramallah, and the deployment of security forces in the northern West Bank city of Jenin.

Israel controls access to Ramallah and the passage of supplies, including building materials, into the city.

The State Department document said a US general would monitor implementation of the measures.

'I really do think that what we have to do is to have meaningful progress towards a better life for the Palestinian people, towards economic viability for Palestinians, even as we move towards the establishment of a state,' Rice told reporters before the document was issued.

Israel has hundreds of barriers in the West Bank and says they help stop suicide bombers. Palestinians call the restrictions collective punishment. 'I am expecting it to happen very, very soon,' Rice said about roadblock removals.

Rice embarked on her second visit this month, four months after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas launched peace talks with the goal of reaching an agreement by the end of this year.

There has been little visible progress on a deal.

Other confidence-building steps Israel intends to take include the supply of new vehicles and armoured cars to Abbas's forces, and the issuance of 1,500 special permits to enable Palestinian businessmen to travel more freely in the West Bank.

Israel also agreed to allow another 5,000 Palestinian construction workers into the Jewish state, on top of 18,500 who currently have permits, Barak's office said.

'Like always, the formula is to do whatever we can as long as it doesn't affect our own security,' Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said after seeing Rice.

Rice will fly later on Sunday to Jordan for talks with Abbas and Jordan's King Abdullah before returning to Jerusalem. Livni on the Israeli side and former prime minister Ahmed Qurie for the Palestinians are leading the first serious negotiations since talks collapsed amid violence in 2001.

But the push is hampered by internal divisions among the Palestinians. Abbas's Fatah movement holds sway in the West Bank while Hamas, an Islamist group officially committed to Israel's destruction, seized control of the Gaza Strip last year. - Reuters




Tags: Israel | rice | West Bank |

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