Israel to ease travel limits in West Bank

Move seems timed to aid leader at odds with Arafat

November 06, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

JERUSALEM - Israel announced yesterday that it was easing travel restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank, a move that appeared timed to help the Palestinian prime minister, who is locked in a running dispute with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

But Palestinians said they saw little immediate change and were still not able to move about freely inside the West Bank, where Israeli troops ring almost all Palestinian cities and towns.

During the past week, Israel has taken limited steps to make it easier for Palestinians to travel and work. In addition, Israeli and Palestinian officials have been holding behind-the-scenes talks to reinvigorate the stalled Middle East peace plan.

The moves come as the Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, installed last month on an emergency basis, attempts to form a permanent government.

Qureia and Arafat held another round of discussions yesterday. But they again failed to resolve a dispute over who would serve as interior minister in a new government, and how much authority that person would have over the security forces, which have been controlled by Arafat.

The one-month term for Qureia's emergency Cabinet expired Tuesday, and Arafat asked the Cabinet to remain in a caretaker role. But Qureia is not expected to present a permanent government for parliamentary approval until he can settle his differences with Arafat.

Israel's announcement yesterday said the army had decided to "lift the encirclement" of all Palestinian cities in the West Bank, except for Nablus and Jenin. Those two cities are in the northern part of the West Bank and are hotbeds for Palestinian militants.

Israeli troops have been in or around the Palestinian cities since the middle of last year, making it difficult, if not impossible, for Palestinians to travel.

The restrictions have disrupted everyday life for Palestinians, but Israel says that the measures are necessary to prevent Palestinian attacks, and that when restrictions are eased, an increase in Palestinian violence follows.

Meanwhile, the Israeli news media and security officials said the Defense Ministry was considering removing 10 to 20 Jewish settlement outposts in the West Bank.

The Middle East peace plan calls for Israel to take down all the outposts built since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon came to power in March 2001, but only a few of the roughly 60 outposts have been dismantled.

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