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Rice trumpets progress in Middle East

Israel agreed Sunday to dismantle 50 West Bank roadblocks after talks with Secretary of State Rice.

By Ilene Prusher – Staff Writer, Joshua Mitnick – Correspondent / March 31, 2008

Roadblock removal? Israeli defense officials say Israel will remove the above checkpoint at the entrance to the West Bank city of Jericho.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP

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Jerusalem

In a step toward realizing their pledge to broker a landmark Middle East peace deal by the end of 2008, US State Department officials said Sunday that Israel had agreed to remove some 50 West Bank roadblocks hindering Palestinian travel.

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The announcement came as part of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's three-day visit here, during which she has been working to push Israeli and Palestinian leaders toward reaching an agreement on Palestinian statehood before President Bush leaves office.

Following the Annapolis peace conference that formally restarted the talks at the end of last year, Israelis and Palestinians committed to implementing commitments under the US-backed "road map" peace initiative that are considered prerequisites to the establishment of the Palestinian state.

"Today Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak agreed on concrete steps to implement the road map," US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in a statement issued in Jerusalem after Ms. Rice met with the two leaders.

"All of these steps can provide meaningful improvements in the lives of ordinary Palestinian and Israeli citizens, if they are successfully implemented," the statement said.

Aside from the removal of dozens of roadblocks, Rice also won Israeli approval to allow Palestinian police to take responsibility for security in the violence-wracked city of Jenin.

The Israelis also pledged to increase the number of travel and work permits given Palestinians and to support economic projects in Palestinian towns.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, are supposed to step up their fight on terrorism and show progress on a major reform of the government.

Removal of roadblocks welcomed ...

The removal of checkpoints and other forms of barriers – some of them dirt mounds placed by the Israeli army that limit access to and from Palestinian villages – was welcomed by some Palestinian leaders, who say that the constraints on freedom of movement only create frustration and amount to collective punishment.

"I really do think that what we have to do is to have meaningful progress toward a better life for the Palestinian people, towards economic viability for Palestinians, even as we move toward the establishment of a state," Rice said at a news conference with Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni.

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