West Bank movement eased

2010-05-24 22:37

Ramallah -  Israel's military announced on Monday it plans to further ease restrictions on Palestinian travel in the West Bank, delivering what appeared to be a first in a series of gestures requested by the US as part of renewed peace talks.

Indirect, US mediated negotiations began earlier this month, with a US envoy shuttling between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Palestinian officials say the Obama administration has asked for Israeli confidence-building steps, including the removal of more West Bank checkpoints and the release of Palestinian prisoners.

An Israeli government official, speaking on condition of anonymity to comply with briefing regulations, said the easing of restrictions came in the context of the peace talks.

He gave no timeline, but at least one of the changes was in effect Monday with the opening of a road.

For the past decade, since the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising, Israel has severely restricted Palestinian movement with hundreds of obstacles and checkpoints, as well as its West Bank separation barrier.

The restrictions were meant to keep out Palestinian attackers, and largely remained in place after the uprising ended several years ago.

In recent months, Israel has made it easier for Palestinians to travel in the West Bank, and Monday's announcement signalled a further step in that direction. 

85 roadblocks

However, about 85 manned roadblocks and more than 400 unmanned obstacles, like metal gates and earthen mounds, remain in place, according to UN figures.

Asked to comment on the Israeli measures, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat noted that Israel has yet to meet international commitments it has made, such as halting all settlement construction.

"We will see what happens on the ground and judge it," Erekat said.

The military said it would open two segments of West Bank roads to Palestinian motorists, remove 60 unmanned roadblocks, ease access of foreign tourists to the biblical city of Bethlehem and make it easier for Israeli Arabs to drive to West Bank towns.

Bethlehem's mayor, Victor Batarseh, said that if implemented, the decision would help improve the local economy, which relies heavily on tourism.

One of the road segments cited in the military announcement was open to Palestinian motorists on Monday and significantly shortened the hour-long drive from Bethlehem to the town of Ramallah.

The Gaza Strip has been under an Israeli-Egyptian lock down since the Islamic militant Hamas seized the territory three years ago. West Bank residents are not allowed to travel to Gaza and require special permits to enter Israel and east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians seek as a capital.

Even within the West Bank, large areas are off-limits to Palestinians, including Israeli settlements and much of the Jordan Valley.

July elections

In other developments on Monday, Hamas formally announced that it would not participate in municipal elections in the West Bank in July.

Such a decision was widely expected, in part because the movement's West Bank operations have been weakened during a three-year crackdown by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of the rival Fatah movement.

The clampdown came in response to Hamas' 2007 takeover of Gaza, which left Abbas controlling only the West Bank.

With Hamas out of the picture, Abbas' Fatah movement will compete against political independents. Fatah was trounced by Hamas in 2006 parliament elections, and views the municipal elections as a step toward political rehabilitation.

Hamas says elections can only be held as part of a reconciliation deal with Fatah.

Shekels for prisoners

Israel also said it arrested 10 Palestinians accused of transferring millions of shekels, or hundreds of thousands of dollars, from the militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups in Gaza to Palestinians serving time in Israeli prisons.

Among those detained was an east Jerusalem lawyer caught trying to enter Israel with more than $100 000 in cash, the Shin Bet security service said.

The Shin Bet has not given a specific figure but says millions of shekels have made their way into accounts of prisoners accused of security offences, including deadly attacks on Israelis.

The arrests took place in April and May, but were subject to a gag order until Monday, when four of the suspects were indicted in a Jerusalem court.

They were charged with money laundering and violating terrorism and tax laws.