( AP )- In talks with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Sunday, Israel pledged to remove some West Bank roadblocks as a start to "concrete steps" aimed at achieving a peace deal with the Palestinians this year.
Rice brought senior Israeli and Palestinian officials together and then announced that Israel will remove about 50 roadblocks and upgrade checkpoints to speed up the movement of Palestinians through the West Bank, while the Palestinians pledged to upgrade security.
The Israelis also will give Palestinians more security responsibility in the town of Jenin with an eye toward looking at "other areas in turn." They also pledged to increase the number of travel and work permits for Palestinians and to support economic projects in Palestinian towns.
In return, the Palestinians promised to improve policing of Jenin "to provide law and order, and work to prevent terror," according to a State Department statement.
Rice, visiting the region for the second time this month in hopes of energize faltering talks, said the moves "constitute a very good start to improving" a Palestinian economy crippled by the Israeli restrictions.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad agreed to what the U.S. termed "concrete steps" at a joint meeting with Rice.
"We've been told that this is going to start and, hopefully even be completed in a relatively short period of time," Rice told reporters. "I am expecting it to happen very, very soon."
"We will be monitoring and verifying," she added.
The agreement includes:
_removing 50 travel barriers in and around Jenin , Tulkarem , Qalqiliya and Ramallah ; they are major Palestinian towns in the northern and central West Bank.
_dismantling of one permanent roadblock.
_deploying 700 Jordanian-trained Palestinian police in Jenin and allowing them to take delivery of armored vehicles. Jenin is known as a stronghold of Palestinian militants and has been a frequent site of clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen.
_raising the number of Palestinian businessmen allowed into Israel to 1,500 from 1,000.
_increasing the number of work permits for Palestinian laborers by 5,000 from its current number of 18,500.
_building new housing for Palestinians in 25 villages.
_connecting Palestinian villages to the Israeli power grid.
_Israeli support for large-scale economic development programs and encouragement of foreign investment.
Neither Barak nor Fayyad commented on the developments when they appeared at a brief photo opportunity with Rice after their meeting.
Samir Abdullah, the Palestinian planning minister, said he welcomed any improvement, but called Israel's moves "too little, too late."
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat was skeptical. "We have heard in the past six months from the Israeli side and as many times their intentions to remove roadblocks and improve the situation on the ground," he said. "We would like to see this with our eyes and not only hear it with ears, and we hope that this time the Israeli side will deliver."
Israel maintains hundreds of checkpoints, roadblocks and other travel restrictions in the West Bank, and says they are needed to stop suicide bombers. The Palestinians say the restrictions are excessive and have stifled their economy. They have made removal of the checkpoints a priority as the two sides, with U.S. backing, try to negotiate a peace agreement by year's end.
Rice had said she was looking for "meaningful" steps to put in place the stalled U.S.-supported plan that envisions the creation of an independent Palestinian state through concessions on both sides.
"There has not been enough momentum," she said. "This is a start in terms of delivering on some of those obligations."
Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert , and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas , restarted peace talks at a U.S.-hosted summit last November, after seven years of fighting.
Despite the pledge to reach a final deal by year's end, negotiators have made no visible progress, and Olmert has warned that Israel cannot carry out any agreement as long as the Hamas militant group controls the Gaza Strip.
Hamas , which is committed to Israel's destruction and opposes the peace talks, seized control of Gaza from Abbas ' forces last June. The Palestinians hope to establish an independent state that includes the West Bank and Gaza, which lie on opposite sides of Israel.
From Jerusalem, Rice went to Amman, Jordan, for separate sessions Sunday with Abbas and Jordan's King Abdullah.
On Monday, Rice planned a three-way meeting with the Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni , who is leading the Israeli negotiating team, and the Palestinian chief negotiator, Ahmed Qureia . Then Rice will head back to Amman for further talks with Abbas .