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Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Peretz updates Jordan, Egypt on plan to ease Palestinian restrictions

Last update - 21:52 26/12/2006   
Peretz updates Jordan, Egypt on plan to ease Palestinian restrictions
By Aluf Benn, Haaretz Correspondent and Haaretz Service

Defense Minister Amir Peretz on Tuesday evening called Egyptian and Jordanian officials to update them on Israel's plan to gradually ease restrictions on Palestinians in order to strengthen Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
During a phone summit with Jordanian Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit and Egypt's chief of intelligence, Omer Suleiman, Peretz praised Egypt for its attempts to curb arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip and urged it to increase its efforts on the matter. He also told the Arab officials that Israel had continued to abide by a nearly month-old ceasefire with Palestinian in Gaza, despite Palestinian violations.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Monday that as a result of the new plan, Palestinians would soon feel a significant improvement in their daily lives.
"The proposed plan is likely to contribute to improving the atmosphere, strengthening moderate forces and distancing the civilian population from the cycle of terrorism," Olmert said in a statement. "My hope is that by [the Muslim holiday of] Eid al-Adha, the Palestinian population will feel a considerable improvement in its fabric of life."
"This is not say that we are slacking off in our was against terrorism," the prime minister added. "We will continue to fight terrorism with the same determination."
Olmert approved the plan Monday, which, among other gestures, includes the removal of 27 roadblocks across the West Bank.
Following a meeting between the prime minister, Peretz, and several other senior defense officials, Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said the prime minister accepted all of Peretz's proposals for easing restrictions.
"The prime minister directed that restrictions be eased immediately for the Palestinian population in order to strengthen moderate elements and implement the agreements and understandings that were achieved [at his meeting with Abbas]," the Prime Minister's Office said in a statement.
According to the PMO, Sneh, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, Police Commissioner Moshe Karadi, Defense Ministry Director-General Gabi Ashkenazi were also among those who participated in the meeting.
Peretz told a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee hearing Monday that there are currently roughly 400 roadblocks in the West Bank. Peretz said the removal of 59 of the roadblocks had been decided upon, including the 27 to be removed in the immediate future.
But, the PMO statement said, the removal of roadblocks will only occur in the second stage of the plan to ease restrictions, in keeping with developments in the coming days.
In addition to the removal of roadblocks, security screening of Palestinian pedestrians and vehicles will be eased at 16 main checkpoints throughout the West Bank.
The plan also includes increasing the flow of goods into and out of the Gaza Strip through the Karni and Kerem Shalom crossings, as well as the flow of goods through West Bank crossings.
According to the PMO, the plan includes an increase in the number of transit permits for Palestinians not involved in terror activities.
Olmert also decided to implement a plan to pave dozens of interchanges along Route 60, which bisects the West Bank.
"According to security establishment data, paving the interchanges will reduce by approximately 40 percent the friction between the Palestinian population and IDF soldiers," said the PMO statement.
"In practice, paving the interchanges will enable the Palestinians to travel more easily - and without roadblocks - between rural communities and the main towns in Judea and Samaria."
The PMO said the cost of paving the intersections is estimated at millions of shekels.
Peretz also told the Knesset panel that he will receive a proposal for the removal of unauthorized West Bank settlement outposts within 10 days. According to Peretz, an agreement has been reached with the Yesha Council of Settlements on the voluntary evacuation of some of the outposts.
Peretz: Prisoner release could help free Shalit
Peretz said Monday that he supports the release of some Palestinian prisoners, even without a deal on the return of kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, and that such a measure could speed Shalit's release of the kidnapped.
"There has been a humanitarian release of prisoners every year at the approach of Eid al-Adha, Christmas, the holiday week," Peretz told reporters after a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
"A humanitarian act such as this would not distance the release of Gilad Shalit, and, I hope, would increase the chances for it." Shalit was kidnapped on June 25 from an IDF position bordering the Gaza Strip.
Olmert urged the cabinet Sunday to consider a prisoner release, reversing his earlier insistence that Shalit be released before Israel frees any Palestinians.
Peretz' plan, presented to the Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, will follow the outline formulated by Sneh. The defense minister also approved steps that will make it easier for Palestinian workers and merchants to enter Israel.
As senior IDF officers and Defense Ministry officials were still in the throes of debate over the removal of army checkpoints in the West Bank, Sneh said Monday that the disagreements were to be expected under the circumstances.
Sneh told Army Radio that, "there are always disagreements between those who seek to take fewer risks and focus on security, and those who are interested in curbing hostility, friction and hatred."
Olmert promised Abbas that he would "personally supervise" the removal of checkpoints, in order to give Palestinians greater freedom of movement.

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