Middle East

Israel Attempts to Bolster the Palestinian President

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Israel has agreed to remove some of the military roadblocks hindering Palestinian travel in the West Bank. The gesture is aimed at boosting moderate President Mahmoud Abbas in his struggle with the rival Palestinian group Hamas.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

The prime minister of Israel is making a move that would allow Palestinians in the occupied West Bank to move more freely. Ehud Olmert has announced Israel will take down more than two dozen roadblocks there. In a statement the Israeli leader said Palestinians generally will soon see a significant improvement in their daily lives.

NPR's Linda Gradstein reports.

LINDA GRADSTEIN: Removing the roadblocks is one of the series of goodwill gestures Olmert promised Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in a meeting this weekend. He also said Israel will make it easier for goods to move in and out of the Gaza Strip. The main crossing point has been closed for weeks at a time and hundreds of tons of Palestinian produce has spoiled while farmers waited for it to open.

In a statement, Olmert said he hopes to, quote, “improve the atmosphere, strengthen moderate forces and distance the civilian population for the cycle of terrorism.” In perhaps the biggest concession of all, Olmert said he would consider releasing several dozen Palestinian prisoners in advance of next weeks Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. Until now, Olmert had been adamant that no Palestinian prisoners would be freed until an Israeli soldier, captured by Hamas gunmen in June, was released.

It's all about strengthening Abbas, who recently announced he will call early Palestinian elections in a direct challenge to the ruling Islamist Hamas movement. That announcement sparked factional fighting between Hamas and Abbas' Fatah that left at least 10 Palestinians dead.

Palestinians welcome the Israeli decision but said it is only a small step toward improving their lives. United Nations monitors say there are more than 500 roadblocks and dirt barriers that make it almost impossible to move around even inside the West Bank. And on the prisoner issue, Palestinians say all 10,000 must be freed if Israel wants to show it's serious about resuming peace talks, which have been stalled for six years.

Israeli officials, for their part, point to continuing rocket fire from Gaza despite an announced ceasefire. At least five more rockets landed in southern Israel today, one near a power plant in the city of Ashkelon.

Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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