By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 31, 2008
JERUSALEM, March 30 -- Prodded by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Israel said Sunday that it would remove about 50 roadblocks in the West Bank as it moves ahead with faltering negotiations aimed at reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians by the end of the year.
Rice called the announcement "a very good start" to improving Palestinians' freedom of movement in the West Bank, a key element in the peace process. But Palestinian leaders reacted far more cautiously, noting that Israel has promised before to take down internal West Bank barriers but failed to follow through.
"We will believe it when we see it," said Saeb Erekat, a leading Palestinian negotiator. "I hope that this time they will deliver."
Erekat said the Palestinian Authority had not been told which roadblocks would be removed, or when.
The West Bank is marked by 580 barriers -- including roadblocks, checkpoints, barbed wire, concrete walls, dirt mounds and trenches -- that Israel says are needed to guarantee security but that the Palestinians consider devastating to their economic well-being.
The number has risen from 563 at the time of the peace conference last November in Annapolis, Md., according to a U.N. agency that monitors the number of such barriers.
The Annapolis process began with great fanfare, but there have been almost no tangible signs of progress in the four months since.
Rice had been pushing Israel to remove some barriers as a show of good faith and had said the United States would be monitoring Israel's efforts to make sure it followed through. Israeli officials said the 50 roadblocks that will be eliminated are primarily dirt mounds.
"We've been told that this is going to start and, hopefully, even be completed in a relatively short period of time," said Rice, who met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders Sunday in Jerusalem. "I am expecting it to happen very, very soon."
Israel also agreed Sunday to upgrade checkpoints to allow Palestinians to pass through more quickly and to give Palestinian security forces greater responsibility in the West Bank city of Jenin.
The Palestinians, in turn, agreed to improve their policing of Jenin, where anti-Israeli fighters are active.
Israel has said it wants to be careful in removing the barriers because it does not believe the Palestinian Authority has done enough to improve its security capabilities. The West Bank, which was captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, is still patrolled by Israeli soldiers, although the Palestinian Authority has primary responsibility for security in major Palestinian cities.
"Unfortunately, throughout the West Bank you have terror cells -- whether Hamas, Islamic Jihad or renegade Fatah -- and they present a real and present danger to the public," said Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "If we were to take down the checkpoints in an unthinking way, we may get a good headline one day but have a wave of suicide bombings the next."
Under the Annapolis agreement, improvements such as the elimination of roadblocks and the upgrading of Palestinian security are intended to complement talks aimed at resolving disputes on core issues, including the borders of a Palestinian state, the rights of refugees and the status of Jerusalem.
Rice is on her second visit to Israel this month, ahead of President Bush's second visit this year in May, when he will join in celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the Jewish state's founding. Vice President Cheney also visited Israel and the West Bank this month.
Bush has said he wants a framework for peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in place by the time he leaves office in January 2009. Even if a framework is reached, however, both sides acknowledge that implementation will be virtually impossible because the radical Islamist movement Hamas, which is not taking part in the talks, controls the Gaza Strip -- a crucial component of any future Palestinian state.