Israeli army chief's criticism of Sharon may ease restrictions in occupied lands

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The Independent Online

Moves are under way to ease restrictions for millions of Palestinians in the occupied territories. The plan was confirmed yesterday after the Israeli army's chief of staff, Moshe Ya'alon, was named as the source behind an attack on the hardline policies of Ariel Sharon's government.

Mr Sharon said yesterday that he was ready for talks on the peace process with the Palestinian Prime Minister, Ahmad Qureia, "at any time". Mr Sharon's government may have been stung into action by General Ya'alon's criticisms.

Nabil abu Rdeineh, one of Yasser Arafat's senior aides, said yesterday that Israel and the Palestinian Authority had been discussing how to ease some of the restrictions on Palestinians' movements in the occupied territories - although he said that nothing concrete had been achieved. The unmasking of General Ya'alon as the source quoted in Israeli newspapers attacking government policy on Wednesday caused a furore in Israel.

General Ya'alon said that the roadblocks and military closures, which were preventing Palestinians from travelling between cities in the West Bank, or crossing into Israel to work, were fuelling Palestinian resentment of Israel and strengthening support for militant groups such as Hamas.

He also accused Mr Sharon's government of allowing an opportunity for progress in the peace process to slip through its grasp in the form of the former Palestinian prime minister Abu Mazen. The general said the Israeli government did not do enough to bolster Abu Mazen in the power struggle he eventually lost with Mr Arafat.

He also said that the army was not happy with the new route Mr Sharon pushed through for the "separation fence" Israel is building in the West Bank. The route cuts deep into the West Bank to keep Jewish settlements on the "Israeli" side. He was originally quoted as a "senior officer", but General Ya'alon is now known to have summoned senior columnists to army headquarters for a briefing. The fact that he is a hardliner and a career soldier makes his criticism of Mr Sharon's government more stinging.

Mr Sharon told a meeting in Tel Aviv that he was ready for talks with Abu Mazen's successor, Mr Qureia. "We are maintaining dialogue with the Palestinians, although not on the level of prime minister," Mr Sharon said. "The reason talks are not on a prime ministerial level is due to a Palestinian request to allow Prime Minister Abu Ala [Mr Qureia] to gain strength."

The Israeli government had previously said that it was not prepared to deal with Mr Qureia who, it said, was too close to Mr Arafat.

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