- Associated Press - Sunday, August 15, 2010

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Israeli army cranes on Sunday began removing a concrete barrier that shielded a Jewish neighborhood bordering the West Bank from gunfire — a sign that calm is taking hold in the Palestinian territory.

The Israeli military erected the 600-yard concrete barrier nine years ago on the outskirts of the Gilo neighborhood in southern Jerusalem because of repeated Palestinian shootings from the West Bank town of Beit Jalla.

The barrier is being taken down over the next two weeks because of a reduced security threat and improved coordination between Israeli and West Bank security forces, the Israeli military said.

“Since the barrier is no longer needed for security, it can be dismantled,” Jerusalem city hall said, adding it made the decision in consultation with the military.

The removal of the barrier highlights the different trajectories of the Israeli-controlled West Bank, where pragmatic Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has limited authority over 40 percent of the land, and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

Poverty has deepened in Gaza since the Islamic militant Hamas seized the territory from Mr. Abbas’ forces in 2007 and Israel and Egypt imposed a border blockade. In the West Bank, the economy has made a modest recovery after years of downturn, in part because Israel eased some restrictions on Palestinian movement. Some areas have seen a building boom, new businesses have opened, and car imports are up.

Gilo, a neighborhood of about 40,000, was a convenient target of gunmen during the second Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, which erupted in 2000. Palestinian militants frequently fired at Israelis, including West Bank motorists and soldiers. Gilo was hit because it was close to a West Bank town.

Gilo sits on land Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War and annexed to Jerusalem, a step not recognized by the international community. The Palestinians want to set up a state in the lands occupied in 1967 — the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

The uprising gradually ended after Mr. Abbas became Palestinian president in January 2005. Israel remains in control of the West Bank, while Mr. Abbas has restored order in once-chaotic areas there.

In another sign that Mr. Abbas is trying to cement control over the West Bank and seeking to counter the rival Hamas, his religious affairs minister told a news conference Sunday that the government has taken control of all the territory’s mosques, including content of the main weekly sermon, to make sure houses of worship are not used for political recruitment.

Mosques were once a Hamas stronghold. Since 2007, Mr. Abbas has been cracking down on the militants to make sure they don’t attempt a West Bank takeover.

Religious Affairs Minister Ibrahim Habash said only government-sanctioned preachers are allowed to deliver sermons or teach religion in mosques.

Mr. Habash also defended the government’s recent decision to stop broadcasting readings from the Quran, the Muslim holy book, over mosque loudspeakers before the call to prayer.

Hamas has accused him of “fighting Islam,” but Mr. Habash said he was simply correcting an erroneous practice.

“The Quran should be listened to when recited, and we know that people are busy with their daily lives and won’t pay attention when it comes from loudspeakers in the mosques,” he said.

Also on Sunday, Mr. Abbas was to meet with U.S. envoy David Hale to try to find a way to resume direct peace talks with Israel, which broke down in December 2008.

Although the Obama administration has renewed pressure on the Palestinians to resume direct negotiations, Mr. Abbas is demanding a framework, agenda and time line before they begin, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says there should be no preconditions to the talks.

Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh contributed to this report.


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