JERUSALEM - The Israeli army tightened a blockade around the West Bank town of Ramallah yesterday, sharply restricting commerce and travel as part of a new policy by the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to increase pressure on communities seen as hotbeds of violence and terrorism.
The restrictions on Ramallah are among the first major steps by the new government to fulfill Sharon's pledge to improve security for Israelis.
The tightened blockade began to take shape late last week, when Israeli forces dug a 150-yard-long trench cutting off Ramallah from Bir Zeit, site of a West Bank university, and more than 20 other nearby villages. Concrete barriers and checkpoints were erected yesterday in or near at least four villages south and east of Ramallah. Tanks were placed on some roads.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that yesterday's steps completed the isolation of Ramallah. Clashes erupted between soldiers and Palestinians stuck at a new roadblock at the Kalandia refugee camp, but no injuries were reported. Palestinians plan to demonstrate today against the measures.
A lively, cosmopolitan town that is a center for business and home to a number of foreign residents and organizations and members of the Palestinian elite, Ramallah has until now largely been spared the siege imposed on other towns and villages in the West Bank. One army checkpoint south of town was routinely circumvented by motorists who found easy detours.
But in the view of the Israeli military, Ramallah is a haven for those who plan, incite and carry out shooting attacks against Israelis. The town itself is under full Palestinian control and serves as the Palestinian Authority's headquarters in the West Bank.
Raanan Gissin, a Sharon adviser, described the measures as "self-defense."
"That area in Ramallah has seen a marked increase in terrorist activity of all sorts. It has a large concentration of Tanzim [Palestinian militias] and members of security forces who actively participate in terrorist activity," he said.
Gissin noted that Ramallah is the base of Marwan Barghouti, the West Bank leader of the Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, who has been a key figure in the Palestinian uprising.
"Barghouti orchestrates all that. There's a limit," Gissin said.
Rather than tighten the closure throughout the Palestinian areas, Israel has adopted a carrot-and-stick approach.
Gissin said Israel plans to tighten pressure on areas that have been the source of repeated attacks. He added, "In those areas where there is less violence, the local commander will consider all sorts of measures to ease" the restrictions on movement.
An Israeli source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said a similar blockade might be imposed on Hebron, another West Bank town whose Palestinian population has been living for months under a curfew.
Closures already imposed have crippled the Palestinian economy, drawing criticism even from within the Israeli military.
Opponents of the policy say it imposes collective punishment on the general population while failing to halt the movement of those determined to carry out terrorist acts.
In his recent visit to the region, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell warned that the economic pressure "contributes to the overall deterioration" and said that the hardship imposed on Palestinian families "does nothing to quiet the security situation."
The State Department's human rights report said the closures have had a significant negative impact on the Palestinian economy.
Unemployment had quadrupled, the poverty rate had doubled, and income losses were estimated at more than $500 million by the end of last year, three months after the start of the Palestinian uprising.
Human rights groups say the closures and checkpoints have disrupted education and transportation of the sick and wounded.
If Israel follows through with an easing of conditions in some areas, it might deflect some of the international criticism of the closure policy.
Sharon has said that he wants to ease the hardships imposed on the Palestinian population, but demands to see a reduction in violence first.
"There is a famous saying, `It's hard to be a Jew,'" Sharon told CNN yesterday. "It's also hard to be a Palestinian. I know that. I would like to take all those steps, but first of all it should be quiet." Sharon said he sent a message to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, telling him that he would "like very much to ease the conditions" of Palestinians.
In interviews on American television yesterday, Sharon said Arafat's security forces, including the elite Force 17 presidential guard, participated in attacks on Israelis. He said he was disappointed in the Palestinian leader's generally conciliatory speech in Gaza on Saturday because Arafat had not called for an end to the violence.
Sharon contended that Arafat could control the violence if he wished.
The tightened closure could cause a rift within Sharon's unity government.
After the ditch was dug north of Ramallah last week, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the most prominent dove in the Sharon Cabinet, told a Reuters interviewer: "We shall have to look again to those trenches and see if they don't disturb in a very painful way the daily life in the territories."