Israel agreed Monday to remove some of the military roadblocks that have hindered Palestinian travel in the West Bank, a gesture aimed at boosting moderate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in his struggle with the Hamas movement.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert approved streamlining checkpoints and removing roadblocks "to strengthen moderate [Palestinian] elements," according to a statement from his office. Olmert has already offered $100 million in frozen tax income to Abbas and indicated he might release some Palestinian prisoners.
On Saturday, Olmert and Abbas held the first summit of Israeli and Palestinian leaders in more than a year.
Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said inspections would be eased at 16 checkpoints, and 27 unmanned roadblocks would be removed. Also, crossings for people and cargo between the Gaza Strip and Israel would be upgraded "in order to accelerate the economy in Gaza to lessen the poverty and despair."
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, Brig. Gen. Yair Naveh, warned that even that small number would aid Palestinian militants, according to security officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the comments were made privately.
The statement from Olmert's office said that in the first stage, the checkpoints would be expanded and services extended to cut down on waiting time for Palestinians. Later, some roadblocks would be lifted.
Palestinians welcomed the decision. Although hundreds of roadblocks will remain, "we still consider this a step in lifting the internal closure in the West Bank," said Saeb Erekat, a top Abbas aide.
In Gaza on Monday, militants continued firing rockets at Israel. Four exploded harmlessly, and two mortar shells landed near an army base at the vital Karni cargo crossing.