Israel Eases Restrictions on Palestinians' Movement

From Reuters

More than 6,000 Palestinians were allowed into Israel to work Sunday as the government tentatively eased sweeping restrictions on movement that were criticized by the Israeli army chief of staff last week.

Israel had restricted Palestinian travel within and out of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip more than a month ago, cutting people off from workplaces, schools and services, after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 21 people in the Israeli city of Haifa.

But Israeli sources say the belief is growing that Palestinian militant groups could exploit discontent in the occupied territories, and that Israel must shore up the Palestinian Authority, which is formally committed to the U.S.-backed peace plan.

Israeli Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon last week embarrassed the government by telling newspaper columnists that the restrictions were increasing support for militants among Palestinians. Yaalon said that blockades only spread hatred for Israel by pinning down an entire population.

Before the Palestinian uprising began three years ago, 150,000 Palestinians made a living in Israel.

"Only 6,200 crossed today because many did not know they could go through, but tomorrow there will be more. This is an important step after a month of no jobs or money," said Zainab Ghunaimi, a Palestinian labor official in Gaza.

As part of the latest tentative detente, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has been preparing to meet Palestinian officials, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said he would welcome talks with his Palestinian counterpart, Ahmed Korei.

Korei said Saturday that he was willing to take up the offer, but first he must resolve a dispute with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Korei's skeleton Cabinet was formed on an emergency basis. He has been wrangling with Arafat over the distribution of security powers. Korei has until Tuesday to formalize his Cabinet choices.

Arafat told reporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Sunday that the Cabinet would be complete "within days." Asked if Palestinian talks with Israel had been held recently, he said: "Until now officially no, not yet. But we are ready."

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