- The Washington Times - Friday, January 4, 2002

HEBRON, West Bank Israel eased its blockade on the West Bank and Gaza Strip and Palestinians kept militants in check on the first day of U.S. special envoy Anthony Zinni's visit to the region yesterday, but diplomats said the chances of a breakthrough during his four-day mission appeared slim.
Israeli bulldozers cleared away roadblocks at the entrances to several towns in the West Bank, including Hebron and Bethlehem, allowing access to roads that had been sealed off for months. Troops also pulled out of some Palestinian-controlled territory in Jenin and Ramallah in the West Bank, but tanks still surrounded the towns and laid siege to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's office in Ramallah.
"This roadblock had been here for more than a year. It's a real surprise to see it go," said Mahmoud Khalili, a Hebron resident who watched soldiers remove barricades at one entrance to his town.
The Israeli measures follow more than two weeks of relative calm in the West Bank and Gaza, spurred at least in part by Mr. Arafat's appeal to his people in a Dec. 16 television address to put down their weapons.
Gen. Zinni, a retired Marine general who was named Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's special envoy to the Middle East in November, hopes to press the two sides into a full-fledged cease-fire followed by renewed peacemaking.
When Gen. Zinni was here last month, a surge of violence Palestinian suicide attacks and Israeli military raids left more than 100 people dead. This time, top Palestinian officials have been shuttling between Mr. Arafat and leaders of the Islamic Hamas to ensure the militant group continues to hold its fire.
Gen. Zinni is due to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon this morning and later travel to Ramallah for talks with Mr. Arafat.
A U.S. official here said Gen. Zinni will try to persuade Mr. Sharon that the much-reduced level of violence warrants Israeli political concessions to the Palestinians, including a freeze on the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The American troubleshooter will urge Mr. Arafat to dismantle Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad group and make sweeping arrests.
"I think in both cases, he'll get some lip service but he won't get real results," said one Western diplomat stationed in the region.
Israel announced the easing of its closure on the West Bank and Gaza early yesterday, hours before Gen. Zinni's arrival. By afternoon, journalists traveling from Hebron to Jerusalem discovered that checkpoints in some areas had been abandoned and traffic flowed freely.
Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer described the steps as "significant security and civilian measures," but Palestinians said Israel left the most vexing roadblocks in place.
"It's a fake withdrawal," said Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo. "There was no real withdrawal from any of the main roads."
Palestinians want Israel to redeploy troops along a line they held before violence erupted in the West Bank and Gaza more than 15 months ago. During the course of the fighting, Israel has slowly encroached on Palestinian-controlled territory in order to prevent suicide bombers from reaching their destinations.
Mr. Sharon says Israel will withdraw fully and implement other measures outlined in separate initiatives drafted by CIA Director George J. Tenet and former Sen. George Mitchell but only after a total cessation of Palestinian violence.
Israel has pressed Mr. Arafat to arrest some 40 militants believed to have been involved in attacks on the Jewish state, including fugitives who killed Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi last year.
Early yesterday morning, Israeli troops made arrests of their own, storming into Palestinian territory near Hebron and grabbing four men identified as members of the Islamic Jihad.
Mr. Sharon reiterated yesterday that the lull in violence was not sufficient and that Mr. Arafat was not doing enough to rein in militants. But other Israeli leaders, including Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, seemed willing to be more flexible.
Mr. Peres said yesterday that Mr. Arafat had managed to slash the number of daily Palestinian attacks on Israelis from 30 to 10. "My own feeling is that maybe it is a proper time to start the implementation of the Tenet report," he said.
The Tenet agreement and Mitchell report together form a blueprint for getting Israelis and Palestinians out of their cycle of violence and back into a peace process that dried up in September 2000, after eight years of talks.


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