Isreal eases restrictions on Palestinian areas

Israel today eased its tight closure of Palestinian areas and officers from both sides toured trouble spots as part of a US-backed plan to quell violence and restart high-level peace talks.

Israel today eased its tight closure of Palestinian areas and officers from both sides toured trouble spots as part of a US-backed plan to quell violence and restart high-level peace talks.

Negotiations were expected to resume in the coming days, with teams led by Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami and Palestinian Parliament Speaker Ahmed Qureia, said a Palestinian official.

The negotiators are to draft a treaty outline, with each side listing its position on points of dispute, the official said. Once the work is completed, US envoy Dennis Ross would come to the region to try to narrow the gaps.

Major differences remain on the fate of Palestinian refugees and control over a key Jerusalem holy shrine.

In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel eased the sweeping restrictions on Palestinian travel it had imposed after the September 28 outbreak of fighting.

In a first step, Israel lifted its blockade of the West Bank towns of Qalqiliya and Jenin, opened Gaza International Airport and permitted travel from the West Bank to Jordan and from Gaza to Egypt.

At Gaza's Netzarim junction, army bulldozers removed concrete barriers that had blocked Palestinian travel on the main north-south road. Israeli and Palestinian officers stood nearby, studying maps and then shaking hands.

The confidence-building measures are part of a US plan, submitted earlier this week to both sides by CIA chief George Tenet, Palestinian officials said. The plan outlines a timetable for steps to be taken by both sides in order to reduce friction.

Israel's travel restrictions were to be lifted entirely within the next few days, according to the timetable. Brig Gen Abdel Razek Majaida, a Palestinian security chief, said the Israeli army would also begin pulling back from positions near Palestinian areas that were set up in recent weeks.

Joint Israeli-Palestinian security patrols - a pillar of interim peace accords - will be resumed in 10 days, Majaida said. Such patrols were called off shortly after the outbreak of fighting that has killed 364 people, including 313 Palestinians, 37 Israeli Jews, 13 Israeli Arabs and a German doctor.

Palestinian officials said Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was determined to calm the situation and restart negotiations. The unofficial deadline for a peace deal is January 20 when US President Bill Clinton leaves office.

However, even if agreement was reached, its fate would be uncertain. Israel's hawkish opposition leader, Ariel Sharon, stands a strong chance to oust moderate Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in a February 6 election.

Sharon has said he would not honor any peace accord negotiated by Barak before the election. He has also said the interim accords that have guided relations between the two sides for the past seven years were "null and void".

The opposition leader has made peace a central theme of his campaign, addressing the yearning by many Israelis to end the conflict with the Palestinians. However, Sharon has been vague about how he would accomplish a deal while offering the Palestinians far less than Barak.

Sharon's potential coalition partners said he has assured them that he would not dismantle any of the Jewish settlements that dot the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

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