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Mideast Tensions Ease as Israel, Palestinians Make Small Concessions - 2002-07-22

Tensions in the Middle East seemed to ease a bit Monday with Israel and the Palestinians both announcing measures aimed at creating a better climate for a resumption of peace efforts. Israeli-Palestinian tensions were running high last week after a Palestinian bus ambush on the West Bank and a suicide bomb attack in Tel Aviv claimed 12 lives. But signs of a slight relaxation came after a weekend meeting between senior Israeli and Palestinian officials.

Palestinian officials announced the arrest of a top tax official for corruption. Nasser Tahbub was arrested in the West Bank town of Ramallah as part of the Palestinian Authority's promised crackdown on corruption as demanded by the United States, Israel and the Palestinian public.

Mr. Tahbub was arrested in his finance ministry office under the orders of Yasser Arafat. For its part, Israel reopened the university offices of a leading Palestinian moderate. Israel closed the offices of Al Quds university president Sari Nuseibeh on July 9, claiming the facility was being used for PLO and Palestinian Authority work. Mr. Nuseibeh denied that was the case.

Israeli officials said they reopened the offices after receiving written assurances from Mr. Nusseibeh that he would have no contact with the Palestinian Authority and that he would receive no money from it. Israel also announced it has released $20 million in tax revenues owed to the Palestinian authority.

On another key issue, the Israeli media reported that the two sides have been discussing a new Palestinian security initiative that could lead to a staged Israeli withdrawal from re-occupied zones. Israel's daily Ha'aretz newspaper said Palestinian interior minister Abdelrazek al-Yahiya presented the plan at a meeting on Saturday with an Israeli delegation led by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

The paper said the plan would lead to Palestinian forces resuming control of areas after the Israeli army withdraws to positions it occupied before the Palestinian uprising began almost two years ago. No timetable was mentioned for an Israeli withdrawal.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres confirmed Monday that the army is prepared to withdraw from several West Bank towns. He mentioned Hebron and Bethlehem as likely candidates if Palestinian security forces are ready to take over and are capable of preventing attacks on Israel.