Israel lifts West Bank state of siege

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Israel said yesterday it was lifting the internal blockade of West Bank towns and and villages which it imposed after the last suicide bomb in Tel Aviv. It was the most severe curfew imposed on the 1.2 million Palestinians on the West Bank since the Gulf war and had created widespread anger.

"The town closure will not be renewed except for a few areas for security reasons," said an army statement. At the same time Israel will continue to prevent Palestinians entering Israel from Gaza and the West Bank. At the peace summit in Egypt this week, Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, had demanded that the state of siege be lifted.

But while it is easing conditions for Palestinians on the West Bank, Israel is contemplating two measures likely to produce a fresh cycle of violence - the deportation of leaders of Hamas, the Islamic political movement, and military retaliation against guerrillas in Lebanon for recent ambushes of Israeli troops occupying the south of the country.

Shimon Peres, the prime minister, says he approves of the expulsion of Hamas activists though not of their families. Deportation of Hamas leaders, similar to the Israeli action in 1992 when 415 were expelled, is likely to heighten tension on the West Bank and will be difficult to carry out since the political leaders of the movement are mostly in Gaza.

In Lebanon, where five Israeli soldiers were killed and 21 wounded in ten days by Hizbollah, the Lebanese guerrilla movement, a senior military officer said: "Hizbollah has crossed all red lines. We cannot continue restraining ourselves." Another officer predicted a serious military operation in Lebanon. Commentators say action was delayed while President Clinton was visiting Israel after the Sharm el-Sheikh summit.

Palestinians were also upset by the endorsement of Israeli policy by President Clinton, who appeared to justify the closure on security grounds, during his visit to Israel. For ten days the sick have had difficulty reaching hospitals and food supplies have been running low. "Primary health services are paralysed and deaths have resulted from people's inability to access health services," according to Dr Mustafa Barghouti of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees.

Dr Barghouti said that in St John Hospital in East Jerusalem, only 13 out of 69 nurses have been able to get to work and at another no more than 28 per cent of beds are occupied because patients are stopped at Israeli checkpoints. The Land and Water Establishment, a Palestinian human rights organisation, says that five people have now died.

In one case Hanan Zair, a pregnant Palestinian woman in labour on her way to hospital in Bethlehem, was detained by an Israeli checkpoint where she gave birth to twins. Her family say that they were delayed an hour, as a result of which both babies died later in hospital. An army investigation contends that one was born dead.

Palestinian leaders argue that the closure has generated such friction it will erode support for the Oslo agreements and lead to fresh attacks. Many measures common during the Palestinian intifada in 1987 to 1992 returned, including the stripping of curfew-breakers and forcing them to walk home naked.

Meanwhile, the absence of more suicide bombs exploding since 4 March, the Sharm el-Sheikh summit and the supportive visit of President Clinton are helping Mr Peres in his election campaign. In the latest poll in the daily Yediot Aharanot he leads Binyamin Netanyahu, the leader of the right-wing Likud party, by 50 per cent to 47 per cent.