- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 8, 2009

NABLUS, West Bank | Bucking pressure from the Obama administration to rein in settlement growth, Israel has instead eased restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank.

At Israeli checkpoints around Nablus - the second-largest city in the West Bank and once notorious as a den of militant activity - the wait time for Palestinians has been reduced from several hours to a few minutes. Downtown streets that echoed with gunfire at the height of the Palestinian intifada now buzz with cars that ply their way through throngs of pedestrians.

Israeli officers say that the number of checkpoints staffed by them has been cut in half.

The gesture reflects both stepped-up patrols by the Palestinian Authority’s security forces, as well as an effort by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to curry favor with the U.S. without incurring the wrath of his right-wing supporters.

Mr. Netanyahu was able to cut back on checkpoints because there was little security risk, said Zalman Shoval, a foreign-policy aide to the prime minister and former Israeli ambassador to Washington.

Weeks of bilateral talks have failed to narrow gaps over U.S. demands for a building freeze in the West Bank and the Netanyahu government’s position that construction is needed for “natural growth” - to accommodate the children and grandchildren of settlers.

In a joint statement released Monday after a meeting in London between U.S. Middle East envoy George J. Mitchell and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, movement restrictions were mentioned along with settlements as key to pushing forward the peace process between Israel and the Arabs.

Palestinians and the United Nations have confirmed that conditions in the northern West Bank and particularly in the cities of Nablus, Qalqilya, Ramallah and Jericho have improved.

“These measures have significantly reduced the amount of time for Palestinians to access these cities,” said a new report by the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, a department normally highly critical of Israel.

Indeed, at a checkpoint at the southern entrance to Nablus, vehicle traffic moves swiftly as Israeli soldiers wave cars by. While long waits for cars once forced most Palestinians to cross by foot, there were no pedestrians during a visit this week.

“There are no more lines,” said Maj. Avital Leibovitch, an Israeli army spokeswoman. “If you stand on the hilltop, and you look over Nablus, you will see an alive, vibrant city.”

There are still 613 barriers to Palestinian movement in the West Bank, including 68 permanently staffed checkpoints, according to the United Nations.

Nevertheless, the change is palpable.

Tour buses have even started ferrying Arab Israelis to Nablus to hunt for bargains.

“The soldiers didn’t trouble us,” said Hitam Kneifi, 37, an Israeli Arab who shopped for children’s clothes here. “I was afraid of clashes and confrontations, but I found it stable and quiet.”

A reinforced and retrained Palestinian security force has collected weapons from militants and absorbed some into its ranks, helping to reduce violence.

The roadblock loosening “is something that is easier for Netanyahu,” said Alon Liel, a former Israeli Foreign Ministry official. “But I don’t think that can divert attention from the [settlement] issue.”

Indeed, Mr. Netanyahu has talked frequently about promoting an “economic” peace with the Palestinians that would sap the popularity of militants and serve as a precursor to a political settlement. Beyond the movement relaxations, however, he hasn’t implemented a more detailed program.

A group of university students from villages around Nablus said that the commute to class is much easier and the risk of missing lectures has decreased. But they disagreed about whether that is a sign of warming ties with Israel.

“Our life is better,” said Aziza Abedoo, 29. “But there isn’t an atmosphere for a peace process. It’s either us or them.”

Mariam Mohammed, 24, was more optimistic.

“For sure, now that they have removed the checkpoints, we’re starting to think of the peace process,” she said.

At the ticket counter of a recently opened movie theater in the Nablus downtown mall, Moussa Abu Samer said the number of checkpoints between Nablus and his home in East Jerusalem had dropped to two from about six.

“It’s a good feeling,” he said. “It’s about time people get back to doing the normal things.”

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