Guarded welcome for Israeli moves to relax grip on the occupied territories

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The Independent Online

As Ariel Sharon, Israel's Prime Minister, prepared to fly to Washington for talks with George Bush, his cabinet voted yesterday to free 100 Hamas and Islamic Jihad prisoners as well as 400 from the mainstream Al Fatah movement still awaiting release.

The army began dismantling roadblocks and easing trade and traffic in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Bulldozers removed the Surda checkpoint north of Ramallah, and the Ein Arik barrier west of the city. Public transport has been restored between Nablus and Jenin. Soldiers also opened a road from Hebron to the south and between Bethlehem and three satellite villages. The government authorised 4,000 workers and businessmen and 500 Christians to enter Israel from Bethlehem. In Gaza, 18,000 workers were given permits to work in Israel, if they can find a job.

The moves were designed to sweeten the atmosphere for Mr Sharon at the White House and to gain support for Abu Mazen, the Palestinian Prime Minister. Palestinians say Israel has 6,000 prisoners, including 351 under 18 and 75 women.

The Palestinians gave the gestures a qualified welcome. Ali Abu Samra, 15, was happy because he will be able to go back to school. "I'll be able to see my friends again and work with my father in the holidays without being checked or harassed," he said. Ahmed Daoud, director of the Palestine Media Centre in Ramallah, said: "I am very happy. But it is a minor step. They removed four of 174 checkpoints. If these measures are not followed by something more solid, we shall see them simply as a way of beautifying the ugly occupation."

Ismail Haniya, a Hamas leader, said: "Our people did not fight for three years to remove a checkpoint here or there, or to release a few score prisoners. These measures are only sprinkling dust in Palestinian eyes. We demand the release of all prisoners and the removal of all settlements."