Under pressure, Israel eases blockades on West Bank

Israel bowed to international criticism yesterday by easing a blockage of cities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that is choking the Palestinian economy.

But in Ramallah, one of the sealed-off West Bank cities, Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said the change was cosmetic and aimed "at deceiving the world that the closure has been lifted."

Under criticism from Washington and the European Union, the Israeli army reopened two roads to Ramallah yesterday, but traffic was backed up for miles as troops searched each car. The strict closure on Ramallah was imposed on Sunday after Israel said it had hard intelligence that a band of militants was planning to leave Ramallah for Jerusalem with a car bomb. The militant Hamas has threatened to greet new Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government with 10 suicide bomb attacks and took responsibility for two blasts in Israel this month, killing four Israelis. Mr. Sharon said Israeli security caught militants who were about to carry out an attack, but "the entire cell was not caught."

Earlier, the army began lifting blockades on four West Bank towns after Sharon announced that he wanted to avoid collectively punishing Palestinians whenever possible. Israeli troops somewhat eased travel restrictions in Bethlehem, Tulkarem, Qalqiliya, and Jenin. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Israel must find a way to "distinguish between the people involved in terror and people who are trying to live their daily life."

Israel had dug trenches and deployed tanks near Palestinian-ruled areas, preventing Palestinian travel between towns and restricting the movement of goods.

Washington warned Israel on Monday that if the economic pressure brought about a collapse of the Palestinian Authority, then it would not augur well for peace. But Sharon's aide Raanan Gissin brushed off the criticism, saying that "At the same time, President Bush insisted last night the Palestinians must stop the hostilities and violence before there can be any meaningful negotiations."

Meanwhile, the army denied reports that it tried to assassinate Marwan Barghouti, head of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement in the West Bank, during a clash with Israeli troops in Ramallah on Monday. A Palestinian intelligence officer was killed as he stood near Mr. Barghouti during the confrontation.

Five months of fighting has claimed an estimated 423 lives, including 348 Palestinians, 57 Israeli Jews, and 19 others.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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