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Israel Dismantles Some Roadblocks Around Bethlehem - 2001-12-28

Israel is dismantling some roadblocks around the West Bank city of Bethlehem to ease travel restrictions for Christians and other visitors.

The decision to ease restrictions around Bethlehem came three days after Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was banned from attending Christmas celebrations there.

Israel has come under heavy international criticism for barring Mr. Arafat from traveling to Bethlehem. It was the first time he missed Christmas Eve observances there since 1995, when Bethlehem came under Palestinian control.

Israel says it is easing restrictions on Bethlehem to facilitate maximum access for Christians from Israel. The decision comes in time for those wanting to travel to Bethlehem for Orthodox Christmas celebrations on January 6. The Christian community in Israel and the Palestinian territories is mostly Eastern Orthodox.

But Israel says the eased travel restrictions do not apply to Yasser Arafat, who will be banned from attending the Orthodox celebrations, too.

Israel says Mr. Arafat cannot leave Ramallah, until he hands over suspects linked to the October murder of an Israeli minister.

The Palestinian leader has been a virtual prisoner in the West Bank city since Israel intensified its military campaign against terrorism some three weeks ago. Israel has complained that Mr. Arafat is not doing enough to crack down on militant violence against Israel.

The level of violence has dropped sharply since Mr. Arafat made a public appeal for calm nearly two weeks ago.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says that negotiations cannot resume until there is a week of zero violence. Despite sporadic incidents of violence, top Israeli and Palestinian officials have been holding secret talks to work on a cease-fire and a new framework for resuming peace negotiations.