- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 1, 2003

JERUSALEM — Israel yesterday lifted the closure it had imposed on Palestinian territories two months ago, and thousands of Palestinians were permitted to cross into Israel to work as an incipient peace process got under way.

These gestures are to be followed within a few days by the release of nearly 100 Palestinian prisoners, Israeli officials said.

The moves come ahead of a summit with President Bush on Wednesday in the Jordanian town of Aqaba that will inaugurate the “road map” to Middle East peace, a three-phase U.S.-backed plan that envisions an end to violence and the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told his Cabinet yesterday that he was likely to make a declaration at the summit committing Israel to dismantling illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, an official at the meeting told the Associated Press.

The easing of travel restrictions yesterday marked the first concrete result of a meeting Thursday between Mr. Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, designed to smooth the path toward implementing the peace plan.

Mr. Abbas has expressed confidence that he would be able to bring about a cease-fire on the part of Hamas and other militant groups within two to three weeks.

About 3,500 Palestinians holding valid work permits walked into Israel through the Erez crossing in Gaza yesterday morning, according to Palestinian officials.

Palestinians trying to cross a checkpoint between the West Bank towns of Ramallah and Bir Zeit were forced to leave their cars behind and walk four miles.

During the Cabinet meeting yesterday, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said the military had foiled terrorist attack plans in recent days.

During the past week, Israeli agents stopped three cars packed with explosives trying to enter Israel, Mr. Mofaz said, according to the official who attended the meeting.

At a meeting last week between Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas, the former said that Israel would refrain from pre-emptive action against militants — namely, targeted assassinations — but would continue to foil terrorism plans that Israeli intelligence learns of unless the Palestinian Authority moves to thwart the attacks.

Mr. Sharon’s political adviser, Zalman Shoval, said during the weekend that the Israeli leader now accepts Mr. Abbas’ efforts at a cease-fire as an initial step.

“There was an understanding,” Mr. Shoval said, “but I want to be clear that they have to start cracking down on terrorism immediately. If they want to do this by starting with a cease-fire, then we welcome this.”

But Israeli officials said that if the Palestinian Authority moves no further than a cease-fire, and if the militant groups remain armed and intact, it probably would oblige Israel at some point to send its forces back into Palestinian cities.

Palestinian Labor Minister Ghassan Khatib said yesterday that the gestures had little effect on the millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and in Gaza.

“The continuous Israeli statements seem directed toward public consumption,” he said. “In practical terms, there hasn’t been any change at all.”

Palestinian, Israeli and U.S. officials have been meeting in recent days to discuss the wording of declarations — recognizing each side’s right to statehood and security — to be issued at the end of the Jordan summit, the first step in the road map.

The Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported yesterday that Mr. Sharon had rejected a U.S. suggestion that he declare an “end to occupation.”

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