A Palestinian diabetic trying to reach a hospital died Wednesday after her car was stopped at an Israeli army roadblock under disputed circumstances as protests continued against the ongoing blockade of Palestinian towns and villages.
Hours after the death of 50-year-old Amira Nassir, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer unveiled a plan at the first meeting of the government's new security Cabinet that will ease some restrictions on the Palestinians.
The announcement came just days before Sharon heads for Washington to hold his first meeting as prime minister with President Bush and against a backdrop of mounting international criticism toward Israel's security moves.
In a statement on the plan, the security Cabinet said that for the first time in months, construction materials will be allowed into the West Bank and Gaza Strip and that Palestinians will be permitted to fish off the Gaza coast. The Palestinian Authority will be allowed to start building a long-delayed power plant in Gaza, and residents will be given greater freedom to travel between their towns and villages.
The Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization had declared Wednesday a "day of rage" against army blockades, but there were only scattered protests in the West Bank and Gaza.
Outside the West Bank city of Ramallah, about 200 Palestinians briefly seized an Israeli checkpoint and reopened a closed road before troops dispersed them with tear gas and rubber-coated bullets.
An 18-year-old Palestinian was shot to death by soldiers at the Karni crossing in Gaza. Palestinians said no clash was occurring at the time of the shooting, an assertion the Israeli army said it was checking into.
Palestinians said 25 people were injured in skirmishes with soldiers throughout the day.
Speaking to the Knesset, Israel's parliament, Ben-Eliezer said he hoped that "very quickly we will lift the closure completely" on the West Bank.
"I will do everything possible to ease the conditions of the population," he said. "I hereby commit, from the podium of the Knesset, that I will do everything so that they will see as few tanks and helicopters as possible in the territories and as many residents who are working and living in dignity."
Nassir was being taken by a family member to a hospital a few minutes' drive from her West Bank village Wednesday when their car was stopped by an army roadblock and denied access, her relatives told reporters. The driver finally found an alternative route into the West Bank city of Janin, but Nassir died of a heart attack before she reached the hospital, they said.
The Israeli army denied any responsibility for her death. In a statement, the military said the driver of a taxi carrying Nassir demanded to be allowed through an army roadblock outside Janin. A soldier manning the checkpoint offered to call an ambulance and a doctor to the scene, but the driver refused and drove away to seek another route to the hospital, the statement said.
"A few minutes later, he came back and asked to get through the roadblock," the statement said. By that time, Nassir was unconscious. Soldiers helped the driver carry the woman to the other side of the roadblock, where a minivan took her to the hospital, according to the statement.
The incident, and Wednesday's confrontations, underscored how tension is mounting in the West Bank and Gaza as Sharon's government, which came to power last week, begins to assert itself and make good on a pledge to restore security.
Palestinians say the roadblocks that keep them from traveling between many towns and villages are strangling their economy and suffocating their society. Israel says the blockades are necessary to prevent attacks on its soldiers and civilians. Sharon and Ben-Eliezer have said the army will control the movements of residents into and out of Palestinian-held areas from which attacks are launched and will ease restrictions on areas that are quiet.
The army has been using roadblocks since the uprising erupted in late September. But on Sunday it blocked all the roads into Ramallah, the commercial and political center of the West Bank, saying it did so to stop a group that operates out of the city from carrying out a car bombing in Jerusalem. The army began allowing cars through Tuesday after criticism of the move by the United States and European Union.
Palestinians have complained for months that the roadblocks keep them from reaching doctors and hospitals. On at least one occasion, a woman gave birth at a roadblock. The Israeli military says its policy is to allow people through for humanitarian reasons, but army spokesmen have conceded in the past that soldiers sometimes fail to carry out the policy.
At the United Nations on Wednesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres paid a surprise visit to the Security Council to speak about reinvigorating the peace process. Palestinian Authority representative Nasser Kidwa spoke to members in a separate meeting--as close as the two sides would come to a face-to-face encounter.
The Security Council is urging both sides to pick up peace talks where they left off before Sharon unseated Ehud Barak as prime minister in February. Peres was expected to sign cooperation agreements between Israel and the world body, a member of the Security Council said.
Times staff writer Maggie Farley at the United Nations contributed to this report.