Israeli army seals borders after 'exceptional' number of terrorist attack warnings

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The Independent Online

The Israeli army closed the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip yesterday, stopping Palestinians crossing into Israel, even as talks between the government and Palestinian leaders continued. At least one armed Palestinian was killed in renewed violence.

The Israeli army closed the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip yesterday, stopping Palestinians crossing into Israel, even as talks between the government and Palestinian leaders continued. At least one armed Palestinian was killed in renewed violence.

The closure in effect cancelled plans to loosen travel restrictions to allow Palestinians to pray at the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and visit relatives for the Muslim festival of Eid, which began yesterday. Thousands of Palestinians still cross into Israel daily to work, though the numbers issued permits are a small fraction of those allowed in before the intifada.

The Israeli army said the reason for the closure was an exceptionally high number of intelligence warnings of attacks by Palestinian militants. The closure coincided with heightened security in Britain and the United States amid fears of an al-Qa'ida attack during the Muslim holiday. The Israeli authorities have repeatedly sought to present their conflict with the Palestinians as equivalent to President George Bush's "war on terror".

The Israeli army frequently orders closures of individual cities, but a total closure is comparatively rare. One was ordered during the final stages of the Israeli election last month, suggesting they could become more common.

Talks were expected to continue between Israeli and Palestinian officials, after the surprise revelation that Ariel Sharon had talks with the Speaker of the Palestinian parliament last week, despite his insistence on no negotiations until the violence ended and Yasser Arafat was removed as Palestinian leader.

Hani al-Hassan, the Palestinian Interior Minister, who has called for an end to attacks against civilians in Israel itself, was due to meet Dov Weisglass, the head of Mr Sharon's office. The two met last week, reportedly at the American ambassador's residence, an indication of the source of pressure for the current discussions.

The talks are believed to be aimed at securing an agreement for Israeli troops to hand back control of reoccupied Palestinian cities to Palestinian security forces, beginning with the West Bank cities of Jenin, Qalqilya and Tulkarem. Similar plans have failed in the past.

In the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian carrying a gun was shot dead by Israeli soldiers. Another Palestinian was shot in the head by Israeli soldiers trying to detain suspected militants in Nablus. Israel radio said he had been killed, but Islamic Jihad denied the claim.

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