November 22, 2002

Sharon to Loosen Restrictions

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has ordered the army to ease restrictions on Palestinians amid increasing signs of popular resistance to Israel's five-week occupation of major West Bank towns.

Israel was also scheduled to turn over $15 million to the Palestinian finance minister on Monday, the first of three installments of tax revenues it has withheld for much of the past 22 months of fighting, both sides said.

Israel had previously demanded U.S. supervision of the money, to ensure it wasn't used to fund attacks, but agreed to place the cash under the responsibility of the new Palestinian finance minister, Salam Fayed, as a goodwill gesture.

The money is a fraction of the estimated $600 million of Palestinian revenues in Israeli coffers.

In addition, Sharon ordered the army and security services to ease other restrictions on Palestinian civilians, including shortening curfews, lifting some roadblocks, and allowing 12,000 Palestinians enter Israel for work, a statement from Sharon's office said.

Previously, the government had said it would issue 7,000 work permits, although it said ultimately the number could reach 70,000. Before the conflict, some 125,000 Palestinians crossed into Israel daily for work.

Sharon also named his dovish foreign minister, Shimon Peres, to be in charge of aiding the Palestinians.

Peres, who is visiting France, met Qatar's foreign minister, Sheik Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabor Al Thani, in Paris Sunday for talks on renewed Middle East peace efforts. A statement from Peres' Jerusalem office said that the two men discussed practical steps that could be taken, but it gave no further details, other than to describe the meeting as "positive".

Peres is scheduled to meet French President Jaques Chirac on Monday.

Sharon announced the easing of restriction after thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank town of Nablus defied the army's five-week curfew Sunday, filling markets and opening offices as Israeli soldiers stood by.

The organizers of the protest, the Nablus city governor, Mahmoud Alol, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, urged residents to repeat the demonstration.

"So many of our people are suffering from hunger and others couldn't get medicine so we have to get our rights by ourselves," Alol said.

The round-the-clock curfew in Nablus has only been lifted five times, for a few hours at a stretch, since Israeli troops reoccupied the city more than five weeks ago.

Elsewhere in the West Bank on Sunday, Israeli soldiers arrested two local leaders of the militant group Hamas in Ramallah, one of whom, Hussein Abu Kweik, had been the intended target of a missile strike that instead killed his wife and three children in March, Palestinian intelligence officials said.

Israeli security sources said the two had been involved in recent suicide bombings: a March 8 attack at the popular Moment cafe in Jerusalem that killed 11 people, and a May 7 attack at a pool hall south of Tel Aviv in which 15 people were killed.

In the Gaza Strip, Palestinian Planning Minister Nabil Shaath visited Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, for what an aide to Shaath said was a visit to offer condolences for Israel's killing last week of Hamas military commander Salah Shehadeh.

Aides to Shaath and Yassin said political issues were discussed, but they refused to elaborate on the three-hour meeting.

Shehadeh's death in an Israeli air strike which also killed 14 other Palestinians came as Hamas and Fatah, of which Shaath is an executive committee member, had reportedly been talking about coordinating a cease-fire with Israel.

In the West Bank Sunday, Israeli soldiers shot and killed an 18-year-old Palestinian as he watched an army incursion into Madra a-sharqieh, east of Ramallah, Palestinian intelligence officials said. Israeli security sources said soldiers fired at two men who were throwing concrete blocks at them.

The violence followed a clash between Jewish settlers and Palestinians during a funeral procession for a slain Israeli soldier in the volatile West Bank city of Hebron. A 14-year-old Palestinian girl was killed and several Palestinians wounded, witnesses said.

The Palestinians, though confined to their homes by an army-imposed curfew, began throwing stones at the funeral procession, according to photographers at the scene.

The armed settlers responded, firing shots at Palestinian homes and using metal bars and stones to smash the windows of cars and homes in Hebron's Old City, residents said.

Palestinian Nizin Jamjoum, 14, was standing on the balcony of her home when she was fatally shot in the head, said her brother Marwan, 26, who was injured. At least six Palestinians were hurt, doctors at the city's Alia Hospital said.

The injured included Ahmed Natcha, age 8, who was stabbed when a group of settlers broke into his home and smashed furniture, said the boy's father, Hussain Natcha. The boy was in stable condition.

The army said it was aware of only one injured Palestinian, and that he had received treatment from troops. The army said it was attempting to calm tensions in Hebron, where several hundred Jewish settlers live among more than 100,000 Palestinians.

However, several Palestinian witnesses said soldiers did little or nothing to stop the attacks by settlers even though they had warned Palestinian residents of possible violence.

(China Daily July 29, 2002)

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