Israel tells Rice will ease some West Bank restrictions

Israel tells Rice will ease some West Bank restrictions

( Reuter )- Israel announced plans on Sunday to ease some restrictions on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, responding to calls by visiting U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to take steps to bolster peace talks.

After a meeting in Jerusalem between Rice, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Israel said it would remove about 50 "dirt roadblocks" and open a "permanent checkpoint" that obstructs the flow of travelers to the town of Jericho.

"I think it's a very good start," said Rice, who shuttled between Israel and Jordan to assess the state of U.S.-backed peace talks before President George W. Bush returns to the region in May.

Israel has pledged in the past to remove West Bank barriers but failed to do so, Western and Palestinian officials said.

"It is important to translate talk about easement measures to a reality on the ground which will enable us to achieve an easing of the suffering of our people and enable the Palestinian Authority to carry out its duties in the West Bank and Gaza Strip," Fayyad's office said in a statement.

Citing security concerns, Israel has balked at Palestinian demands to dismantle major checkpoints.

Also hampering the talks are internal divisions among the Palestinians. Abbas's Fatah movement holds sway in the West Bank while Hamas , an Islamist group officially committed to Israel's destruction, seized control of the Gaza Strip last year.

Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri criticized the three-way meeting as an attempt to give a "false impression of success" in the peace talks and said Rice's visit was aimed at preventing any Palestinian reconciliation.

Long lines and strict security checks by Israeli soldiers have turned the checkpoints into symbols of occupation. Palestinians see them as a bar to progress in talks that Washington hopes can achieve a statehood deal by year's end.

The Israeli measures also included a promise to allow the construction of 5,000 to 8,000 Palestinian homes near Ramallah , and to let Fayyad deploy up to 700 members of a Palestinian security force in the northern city of Jenin , officials said.

But Barak's office said in a statement that "ultimate security responsibility will remain in Israel's hands" even after Palestinian forces take up their positions.

The State Department said a U.S. general would monitor implementation of the measures.

Rice said one reason previous efforts to improve Palestinian movement and access failed was that they were not tied to a broader political process on creating a Palestinian state.

"It becomes a little bit chicken and egg . There are certain things that people are more willing to contemplate as it really does appear that statehood is possible," she said.

Israel has hundreds of barriers in the West Bank and says they help stop suicide bombers. Palestinians call the restrictions collective punishment.

"I am expecting it to happen very, very soon," Rice said about roadblock removals.

Rice embarked on her second visit this month, four months after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas launched peace talks with the goal of reaching an agreement by the end of this year.

There has been little visible progress on a deal.

In addition to the dirt roadblocks, Israel said it approved the transfer of 125 vehicles and 25 out of 50 armored personnel carriers for Abbas's forces.

Israel also agreed to allow another 5,000 Palestinian construction workers into the Jewish state, on top of 18,500 who currently have permits, Barak's office said.

An estimated 1,500 special permits will be given to Palestinian businessmen to travel more freely in the West Bank.

Rice flew on Sunday to Jordan to meet Abbas and Jordan's King Abdullah. She will later return to Jerusalem.

The king called for greater U.S. efforts in the peace process and criticized Israeli "unilateralism, in particular its practices in Jerusalem and ( West Bank) settlement expansion".

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