JERUSALEM -- Israel has agreed to lift travel restrictions in parts of the West Bank in coming weeks, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said yesterday, in what would be the strongest signal yet to Palestinians that a cease-fire with Israel is beginning to pay off.
Israel also said it would allow more Palestinians to enter Israel from Gaza and the West Bank to work.
Abbas made the announcement after returning to the West Bank from a Mideast summit in Egypt, where he and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel declared an end to four years of bloodshed. Freedom of travel would greatly improve the lives of Palestinians; the roadblocks have decimated their economy.
Abbas said Israel had assured him that travel bans would soon be eased and several major checkpoints would be removed as part of its military withdrawal from five Palestinian towns in the coming weeks.
''We agreed that they [Israelis] will pull out of five Palestinian . . . cities and surrounding areas, and also on the removal of roadblocks, which will be manned by the Palestinian forces," Abbas said.
A senior Israeli military official confirmed that several roadblocks would be removed as part of the handover of security responsibility for the five towns to the Palestinians. The official did not list them. Roadblocks between the West Bank and Israel are to remain in place.
Israel says it needs the checkpoints to stop suicide bombers and other attackers. In a recent report, however, the World Bank cited Israeli restrictions on the flow of people and goods as the main cause of economic hardship in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where nearly half of the Palestinians live on less than $2 a day.
The truce declaration has raised hopes of ending the violence and restarting peace efforts. Israel is to hand over the security of Jericho, Tulkarem, Qalqiliya, Bethlehem, and Ramallah in the next three weeks. Abbas and Sharon agreed to the timetable Tuesday.
A second meeting between the two men, at Sharon's
In the West Bank, Palestinian gunmen twice attacked Israeli motorists, causing no injuries. A 22-year-old Palestinian was seriously wounded while walking near a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip; the gunfire came from the direction of the settlement. The Israeli army said it had fired warning shots at four people who entered an unauthorized area, but could not confirm hitting anyone.
Elsewhere in Gaza, a Hamas militant was killed in a blast in the Khan Younis refugee camp. Hamas officials said the man was handling explosives.
Abbas has been working to prevent militant attacks and planned to meet today with leaders of armed groups in Gaza.
In another gesture, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz of Israel announced measures to alleviate conditions for some Palestinians, including allowing 1,000 Palestinians from the Gaza Strip to work in Israel and several hundred more to work in the Erez Industrial Zone, which is between Israel and Gaza, the military said. An additional 2,000 workers will be authorized to enter Israel from the West Bank.
Before the violence erupted four years ago, tens of thousands of Palestinians worked in Israel. Now, just a few thousand have permits.