By Mark Lavie
Tuesday, December 26, 2006
JERUSALEM, Dec. 25 -- Israel agreed Monday to remove some of the military roadblocks that have hindered Palestinian travel in the West Bank, one of several gestures aimed at boosting President Mahmoud Abbas in his bitter struggle with Hamas.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert approved streamlining checkpoints and removing roadblocks "to strengthen moderate elements," according to a statement from his office. Olmert had already offered $100 million in frozen tax income to Abbas and indicated he might release some Palestinian prisoners.
Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said that inspections would be eased at 16 checkpoints and that 27 unmanned roadblocks would be removed. Also, crossings for people and cargo between Gaza and Israel would be upgraded "in order to accelerate the economy in Gaza to lessen the poverty and despair."
Olmert singled out Abbas as a Palestinian leader who is interested in peace with Israel -- a clear contrast to Hamas, which controls the Palestinian government and rejects the existence of the Jewish state. The group has rebuffed international demands to renounce violence.
On Saturday, Olmert and Abbas met for the first summit meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in more than a year. Abbas brought up the issues of prisoners and roadblocks -- among the highest priorities for his people. Delivering on those two items would serve Olmert's interests in boosting Abbas, but they would also cause him considerable political trouble at home.
For six months, Hamas-linked gunmen have been holding an Israeli soldier they captured in a cross-border raid. Up to now, Olmert has said he would not free any of the estimated 8,000 prisoners Israel is holding until the captured soldier was freed. His apparent change of heart has drawn fire from the father of the soldier and hard-line opponents in parliament, but more important, from members of his own cabinet.
Removing roadblocks has also stirred opposition. Only a fraction of the more than 400 permanent barriers in the West Bank would be taken down, but the Israeli army commander in the West Bank, Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh, warned in a closed meeting that even that would aid Palestinian militants in attacking Israelis, according to security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was private.
Trouble was also brewing on the Gaza front, with fighters firing rockets at Israel daily despite a cease-fire. Four rockets exploded harmlessly in Israel on Monday, and two mortar shells landed near an army base at the vital Karni cargo crossing between Israel and Gaza, the military said.
Israel on Monday instructed its U.N. ambassador to lodge a complaint with the Security Council over the rocket fire, a government statement said.
Meanwhile, Jordan will host talks between Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas and Abbas of Fatah after a surge in factional violence, a Hamas official said, according to Reuters. Ghazi Hamad, a spokesman for the Hamas-led Palestinian government, said Haniyeh had accepted an invitation from Jordan's King Abdullah to attend talks in Amman.