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Israel May Ease W. Bank Situation

July 21, 2002|From Associated Press

JERUSALEM — Israel said Saturday that it was willing to take new measures to improve life for Palestinians--provided the attacks against Israelis end--in a resumption of high-level talks that had been called off after bombings last week, Israeli officials and news reports said.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres met with a Palestinian delegation headed by Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat for more than three hours, said Yaffa Ben-Ari, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman.

The Palestinians urged the Israelis to end their occupation of Palestinian cities and towns in the West Bank, saying they couldn't prevent terrorist attacks if the Israelis were in control, Israel Radio said. In addition, Palestinians demanded that Israel release tax money it has withheld, the report said.

The Palestinian economy has been shattered by nearly 22 months of fighting--and more recently by Israel's occupation of West Bank cities.

Before fighting erupted in September 2000, an estimated 125,000 Palestinians crossed daily into Israel for work. Israel has since blocked most Palestinians from entering. Closures in the West Bank and curfews in individual towns have further prevented Palestinians from working.

Two weeks ago, Israeli Cabinet members approved some measures to ease the situation, including increasing the number of permits for Palestinians to work in Israel from 2,000 to 7,000, a security official said.

After two attacks in Israel last week claimed 12 lives, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer froze implementation of the decisions.

On Saturday, Peres told the Palestinians that the 7,000 work permits would be issued in the coming days--provided there were no more attacks, Israel's Army Radio said.

In addition, Israel said it was willing to extend the permitted fishing zone off the Gaza coast and to keep open Gaza's Karni crossing for longer periods to allow more merchandise to pass through, Army Radio said.

Peres said Israel was willing to do more--and wanted to pull out from the West Bank--if the attacks end, the radio reports said.

Ben-Ari said the talks would continue in the coming days.

Peres and Palestinian Cabinet ministers had relaunched high-level meetings in early July, resuming a dialogue that had been stalled for months.

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