Israel takes down wall near West Bank settlement

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The Israeli military yesterday began removing part of an eight-year-old concrete wall which once protected an Israeli settlement from gunfire and shelling, citing sharply improved security as the reason.

The Palestinian Authority pointed out that the move, which does not affect the much longer 450-mile separation barrier, will have no impact on the lives of local Palestinians. But it seized on it as making the case for a wholesale easing of restrictions on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

Army engineers removed sections of a three-metre-high blast wall alongside the Gilo settlement on the southern edge of Jerusalem in an operation which will continue over the next fortnight. The wall was constructed at the height of the intifada in 2002 to protect the settlers from shooting attacks from militants in the Palestinian town of Beit Jala, adjacent to Bethlehem.

Israel Defence Forces spokeswoman Avital Leibovich said yesterday that this was the first time "we have moved such a structure from a neighbourhood that was directly hit by sniper fire and shells". Lieutenant-General Hezi Revivo, of the engineering force removing the Gilo wall, told the Ynet news service: "The security situation in the area is better than it was in the period before the wall was built." Israel has praised the performance of US-trained Palestinian security forces.

But Ghassan Khatib, spokesman for the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, said: "They are not easing anything in practical terms. The only significance is an acknowledgement of the security situation. We are disappointed that when they acknowledge improvements in security they are not lifting the restrictions related to the day to day life of Palestinians, like removing checkpoints and stopping expansion of the wall itself."

The north-south route of the main separation barrier deviates at many points from the pre-1967 "green line" isolating Palestinian villages and cutting off Palestinian residents from their farmland, urban services, and their neighbours.

The US Presidential envoy George Mitchell has been conducting intensive negotiations on a formula which can bring Mr Abbas to the negotiating table despite fierce opposition from more militant Palestinian groups. The Palestinian President has so far been insisting on an extension of the current partial freeze to settlement building beyond September and for internationally endorsed negotiating "parameters".

In a review of the first year of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's plan to prepare for a Palestinian state, the authority has published a report listing its achievements, despite "the Israeli occupation's restrictions and obstacles". They included the building of 34 new West Bank schools, the expansion of a further 23, while 11 new health clinics were opened and a further 30 expanded, 44 housing projects were launched and 16 new roads were built.

Meanwhile Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak yesterday approved the long negotiated purchase from the US of 20 Lockheed Martin F35 fighter jets for the Israeli Airforce at a reported cost of $2.7bn.

* An Israeli suspected of using a fraudulently obtained German passport to take part in the assassination of Hamas militant Mahmoud Mabouh in Dubai has been released on bail in Germany after being arrested in Poland, Israeli newspapers reported. They speculated that the man, named as Uri Brodsky, was already back in Israel.