- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 2, 2003

From combined dispatches

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israel allowed in more than 6,000 Palestinians to work yesterday, in a tentative easing of the sweeping restrictions on movement that were publicly criticized by the army chief last week.

Israel had barred Palestinian travel into and out of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip a month ago, cutting people off from workplaces, schools and services, after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 21 persons in the town of Haifa.

But Israeli political sources say the belief is growing that Palestinian militant groups could exploit discontent in the occupied territories, and that Israel must shore up the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is formally committed to the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan.

In another abrupt turnaround, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said last week that contacts were under way with Palestinian officials, adding, “We are ready to enter negotiations at any time.” Mr. Sharon had previously conditioned talks on a crackdown on violent Palestinian groups responsible for attacks on Israelis.

Asked about Mr. Sharon’s remarks, PA President Yasser Arafat said yesterday he would accept an offer for talks. “There is no official communication, but we are ready,” he said at his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, the Israeli chief of staff, embarrassed the government last week by telling newspaper columnists that Israeli blockades in the West Bank and Gaza were driving more Palestinians into violent resistance.

The restoration of 15,000 Israeli work permits yesterday affects only about 10 percent of the 150,000 Palestinians who earned their living in Israel before the 3-year-old uprising.

“Only 6,200 crossed today because many did not know they could go through, but tomorrow there will be more. This is an important step after a month of no jobs or money,” said Zainab al Ghunaimi, a senior Palestinian labor official in Gaza.

Every other period of relief from the restrictions has ended after another big militant attack — such as the Oct. 4 suicide attack in Haifa that triggered the latest closure of the West Bank and Gaza.

Talks on the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan have been stalled for weeks because of Palestinian bombing attacks and Israeli military operations, along with the Palestinians’ inability to form a stable government.

Mr. Arafat has often said he is ready to talk about peace, but Israel and the United States are boycotting him, charging that he is tainted by terrorism. They insist on dealing with an empowered prime minister.

Mr. Arafat’s first choice for that job, Mahmoud Abbas, lasted only four months before resigning Sept. 6 after repeated clashes with Mr. Arafat over who would run the Palestinian security forces. Mr. Abbas also blamed Israel for its failure to stop military operations and ease restrictions.


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