Israeli arrests hit peace hopes

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The Independent Online

Israeli troops arrested 17 West Bank Palestinians suspected of being militants yesterday, undermining tentative steps made by the two sides to shore up a tentative truce.

Over the past few days Israeli and Palestinian officials have agreed several measures to build confidence, including the rebuilding of the landing strip at Gaza international airport destroyed by Israeli bulldozers earlier this month and extending the opening hours at the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt. Israel has also lifted a blockade on the West Bank town of Jericho, imposed with the aim of preventing attacks by militants on Israelis.

In a step back towards confrontation, Israeli troops entered the village of Azun, which is under joint Israeli-Palestinian control, and arrested 17 suspected militants, including five Palestinian policemen.

Israel has come under widespread international criticism this week for barring the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, from attending Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem for not arresting two men suspected of killing Israel's Tourism Minister, Rechavam Ze'evi. The move was condemned by the European Union, the Pope, six Christian denominations represented in the Holy Land, several Israeli cabinet ministers, the Israeli President, Moshe Katzav, and the Chief Rabbi.

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