Israel to ease travel limits in W. Bank
RAMALLAH, West Bank — Israel’s military announced yesterday that it plans to further ease restrictions on Palestinian travel in the West Bank, delivering what appeared to be a first in a series of gestures requested by the United States as part of renewed peace talks.
Indirect US-mediated negotiations began earlier this month, with a US envoy shuttling between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Palestinian officials say the Obama administration has asked Israel for confidence-building steps, including removing more West Bank checkpoints, releasing some Palestinian prisoners, and allowing more goods into blockaded Gaza.
An Israeli government official, speaking on condition of anonymity to comply with briefing regulations, said the easing of restrictions came in the context of the peace talks. He gave no timeline, but at least one of the changes was in effect yesterday with the opening of a road.
For the past decade, since the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising, Israel has severely restricted Palestinian movement with hundreds of obstacles and checkpoints, as well as its West Bank separation barrier.
The restrictions were meant to keep out Palestinian attackers and largely remained in place after the uprising ended several years ago.
In recent months, Israel has made it easier for Palestinians to travel in the West Bank, and yesterday’s announcement signaled a further step in that direction. But about 85 manned roadblocks and more than 400 unmanned obstacles, like metal gates and earthen mounds, remain in place, according to UN figures.
Asked to comment on the Israeli measures, a Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, noted that Israel has yet to meet international commitments it has made, such as halting all settlement construction.
“We will see what happens on the ground and judge it,’’ Erekat said.
The military said it would open two segments of West Bank roads to Palestinian motorists, remove 60 unmanned roadblocks, ease access of foreign tourists to the biblical city of Bethlehem, and make it easier for Israeli Arabs to drive to West Bank towns.
Bethlehem’s mayor, Victor Batarseh, said that if implemented, the decision would help improve the local economy, which relies heavily on tourism. One of the road segments mentioned in the military announcement was open to Palestinian motorists yesterday and significantly shortened the hour-long drive from Bethlehem to the town of Ramallah.
The Gaza Strip has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since the Islamic militant group Hamas seized the territory three years ago.