Israeli generals urge Sharon to relax curbs

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The Independent Online

There are growing differences between the Israeli army's senior commanders and Ariel Sharon's government over the conflict with the Palestinians, reports in the Israeli press said yesterday.

The mass-circulation Yedioth Ahronoth said senior officers were unhappy with some hardline restrictions imposed by the government on the civilian Palestinian population of the occupied territories, which they believe are fuelling resentment of Israel and strengthening Palestinian support for militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The outburst from the top brass seems to have been triggered by the government's reluctance to approve an easing of restrictions on Palestinian movement proposed by the military. There has been a severe closure of the occupied territories for most of the past month, with Palestinians blocked from crossing to jobs in Israel or even travelling between Palestinian cities and villages. The olive harvest, a vital part of the Palestinian economy, has been damaged.

Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli Defence Minister, said yesterday he would soon ease some restrictions. But that seems to have come after pressure from the military. Unnamed army sources quoted in Yedioth Ahronoth accused General Mofaz of blocking measures the army proposed weeks ago.

Moshe Ya'alon, the chief of staff, reportedly wants the easing to go further, and proposed that the blockades of the cities of Bethlehem and Jericho be lifted, because no suicide bombers have set out from those cities in recent months, or at all, in the case of Jericho. General Mofaz, not Mr Sharon, gets the brunt of the criticism on this issue, but the army does not seem all that happy with the Prime Minister either. Officers are angry that Mr Sharon has pushed through a change in the route of the "separation fence" Israel is building in the West Bank.

The fence will now cut deep into the West Bank so Jewish settlements can be on the "Israeli" side, a decision condemned as detrimental to peace efforts by governments around the world, and which even Israel's main ally, America, dislikes.

Army commanders are reportedly unhappy not only because of the extra resentment they fear it could whip up among Palestinians, but also because the new, much longer fence gives the army a lot of extra work patrolling it and manning gates.

Senior officers also blamed Mr Sharon's government for letting slip away what they considered a golden opportunity for progress in the peace process in the form of the previous Palestinian prime minister, Abu Mazen, the press reports said. Abu Mazen resigned after losing a power struggle with Yasser Arafat, but senior commanders said the Israeli government could have done more to support the former prime minister in that power struggle by relaxing restrictions and blockades on more Palestinian cities. The army is apparently less optimistic about Abu Mazen's successor, Ahmad Qureia.

Mr Qureia said yesterday ceasefire talks with the most powerful Palestinian militant faction, Hamas, had been "constructive". Hamas has confirmed contacts to discuss a possible ceasefire like the one that held over part of the summer. Unlike Abu Mazen, who agreed a ceasefire with the militants alone, Mr Qureia wants first to get a commitment from them, then ask the Israeli government to sign as well, something that looks unlikely to happen at present.

Some observers believe Hamas may want a new ceasefire to regroup because it is weakened by Israeli assassination of its leading militants.

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