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Last Updated: Sunday, 1 June, 2003, 17:13 GMT 18:13 UK
'Little change' after Israel lifts ban
A man hands his ID to an Israeli soldier
Many were reportedly unable to return to their jobs
Palestinians have dismissed Israel's claim that restrictions have been eased in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, saying that in many places, little has changed.

The Israeli army said the total closure of the territories was lifted last night, a move that would allow about 25,000 Palestinians with work permits to return to their jobs in Israel.

But residents of Ramallah in the West Bank said there had been no improvement at checkpoints, while Palestinian officials in the Gaza Strip said fewer than 5,000 people had been allowed to return to their jobs in Israel.

As anticipated, the Israeli army has maintained its positions in both areas so that the closure can quickly be reimposed if Israel feels the security situation demands it.

The restrictions were originally imposed to prevent suicide bombings and other attacks on Israeli targets. Palestinians, who have suffered severe economic and social consequences from the closure, say it amounts to collective punishment.

'New atmosphere'

The Israeli move was billed as a goodwill gesture, and came three days before US President George W Bush is due to meet the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers in Jordan to discuss the US-backed international peace plan for the Middle East known as the roadmap.

The continuous Israeli statements seem directed toward public consumption
Palestinian labour minister

It follows talks last Thursday between the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, and the Palestinian Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas - who is better known as Abu Mazen - on implementation of the roadmap.

"These are definitely actions meant to create a new atmosphere," Israeli Deputy Defence Minister Zeev Boim told Israeli army radio.

But the Palestinian Labour Minister, Ghassan Khatib, said the actions were of little substance.

"The continuous Israeli statements seem directed toward public consumption," he said. "In practical terms, there hasn't been any change at all."

Strings attached

Thursday night's meeting between Mr Sharon and Abu Mazen was the first between the two men since Mr Sharon persuaded his cabinet to approve the US-backed peace plan.

ROADMAP MAIN POINTS
Phase 1 (to May 2003): End to Palestinian violence; Palestinian political reform; Israeli withdrawal and freeze on settlement expansion; Palestinian elections
Phase 2: (June-Dec 2003) Creation of an independent Palestinian state; international conference and international monitoring of compliance with roadmap
Phase 3 (2004-2005): Second international conference; permanent status agreement and end of conflict; agreement on final borders, Jerusalem, refugees and settlements; Arab states to agree to peace deals with Israel

But while ministers backed the plan, they attached a number of conditions to its implementation - reservations which the US has said it will address.

Mr Sharon has made clear that only building work on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza that have not been approved by the Israeli Government will be halted, although the plan demands a freeze on all settlement activity.

Before voting on the roadmap, the Israeli cabinet also passed a motion rejecting the Palestinian demand of the right of refugees to return to their former homes in Israel, while the roadmap urges both sides to reach a resolution on the issue.

For its part, the militant group Hamas has vowed to continue its attacks unless Israel makes substantial concessions to the Palestinians.




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