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Israel May Ease Restrictions Against Palestinians - 2003-04-18

Israel is maintaining tight control over the Palestinian territories this week during the holiday of Passover to guard against possible attacks by Palestinian militants. At the same time, Israel is hinting at easing restrictions and taking other measures to help boost the incoming government of newly designated Palestinian Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas.

The West Bank and Gaza Strip remain under tight closure and Israeli security forces impose periodic curfews on towns and villages as they search for suspected militants. Military sources say they've received dozens of warnings about possible attacks and say they've foiled at least two bomb plots planned by militants in the West Bank town of Tulkarem.

At the same time there are reports that Israel is preparing to ease restrictions on the Palestinians. According to some reports, the government is willing to gradually withdraw troops from some Palestinian areas, release some Palestinian prisoners and step up the transfer of money belonging to the Palestinian Authority.

These issues were apparently discussed with Bush administration officials in Washington during a visit there this week by Dov Weisglass, a top aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The expected trigger for easing restrictions will be the swearing in of Palestinian Prime Minister designate, Mahmoud Abbas. Mr. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, is said to be close to finalizing his new cabinet and he could officially take office within days.

Prime Minister Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin, told VOA this week, the Israeli government is already talking to the new Palestinian leadership. "Contact with Abu Mazen and with several of the Palestinian leaders continue all the time in our relentless effort to find the right path to restart the process - but in a way that will provide security for both sides as well as peace at the end of the line," he said.

Mr. Gissin says Israel wants to work with Abu Mazen, but he says all will depend on the new prime minister's ability to rein in terror and incitement against Israel.

Mr. Gissin says Israel is ready to move ahead and he denies it is doing so under pressure from the United States.

The Bush administration is eager to see the new Palestinian leadership take office. Once that happens Washington says it will unveil the so-called roadmap - a step by step approach designed to end more than two years of violence and bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table to work out a final peace deal and establish a Palestinian state.