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Chris Patten, of EU External Affairs,
talks to the BBC's Frank Gardner
 real 28k

Tuesday, 13 March, 2001, 18:04 GMT
EU urges Israel to end blockade
Palestinian cross Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank
Israel faces mounting pressure to end blockade
A European Union delegation has appealed directly to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to relax the economic blockade of Palestinian areas.

After meeting the Israeli leader, EU External Affairs Minister Chris Patten said all the measures imposed on the West Bank and Gaza Strip could not be justified on security grounds.

If the economy continues to deteriorate, it is more difficult to get back to any political stability

EU Minister Chris Patten
"We argued that higher unemployment, more social instability, would be bound to have implications for security," he said.

Mr Patten said it would be more difficult to re-establish stability and re-launch the peace process.

As international pressure mounted, the Israeli army announced it would relax restrictions on some towns.

Withheld taxes

The EU team also discussed Israel's withholding of tax revenues collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, which says it is on the verge of financial collapse.

Mr Sharon told the EU officials that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat must first call for an end to the five-month Palestinian uprising

Israeli Prime Minister Sharon before meeting EU delegation
Sharon: Violence must stop first
"The economic crisis affecting the Palestinian Authority derives from the fact that the Authority chose to activate violence and terror," Mr Sharon said, in a statement released by his office.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said the tax money went to pay the salaries of Mr Arafat's bodyguards who he said were involved in the violence.

Washington, too, has restated its opposition to the sealing off of the territories, which has left many Palestinians unable to get to their jobs and sparked warnings of an impending humanitarian crisis.

'Reduced violence'

However, Palestinian officials say the easing of the blockade is nothing more than "cosmetic".

The Israeli authorities say the recent clampdown was imposed because suspected Palestinian militants in the West Bank town of Ramallah were planning to bomb nearby Jerusalem.

They are trying to tell the world that the siege has been lifted, which is not true

Palestinian information minister

In the past week Ramallah - a town of more than 50,000 people and the Palestinians' political and commercial centre in the West Bank - as well as the towns of Jenin and Jericho have been sealed off.

Israel says controls have now been relaxed on Ramallah and four other towns: Tulkarm, Qalqilya, Bethlehem and Hebron.

An Israeli army spokesman said there had been a "relative reduction in violence", but warned: "If terrorism resumes, we will take the necessary measures."

Heavy toll

Residents of the towns, however, reported only a slight easing of restrictions on Tuesday.

"They are trying to tell the world that the siege has been lifted, which is not true," Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo told a news conference.

Map of West Bank
The blockade has cost the Palestinian economy millions of dollars, unemployment has soared and hundreds of thousands of people are now reliant on food aid to survive.

Arab foreign ministers have agreed to do more to relieve the situation, following Palestinian criticism that only $8m of a promised $1bn in aid had reached those in need.

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See also:

12 Mar 01 | Middle East
Palestinian disease fears
12 Mar 01 | Middle East
Arab aid slow to reach Palestinians
13 Mar 01 | Middle East
Israel accused of polluting Gaza
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