Israeli army lifts blockade on West Bank city

 

Israel's army said it was lifting its blockade on the encircled West Bank city of Jenin today as an Egyptian envoy called on Israel to do more to help revive Middle East peace talks.

Jenin, a hotbed of militants, has been encircled for much of a three-year-old conflict. The latest closure was imposed after a truce declared by Palestinian factions collapsed amid violence in August and forced negotiations to a halt.

The army announced that the lifting of the closure was "in keeping with assessments of the security situation".

Israeli soldiers at checkpoints around the city, scene of violent battles in April 2002, said blockades and tanks would be gone by tomorrow morning.

Israel is meant to ease restrictions on Palestinians under a US-backed peace "road map" bogged down not only by violence but also by the failure of either side to take promised steps.

Palestinians are supposed to crack down on militants while Israel freezes settlements on land captured in the 1967 war and dismantles unauthorised outposts.

Israeli Prime Minister Mr Ariel Sharon has warned of unilateral separation measures if the road map fails, depriving Palestinians of some of the land they want for a state.

Palestinians said several more protesters were injured by Israeli rubber bullets today at the construction site of a huge barrier Israel is building in the West Bank and expected to form a de facto border if Israel goes it alone.

Israel says the barrier of wire and concrete keeps out suicide bombers. Palestinians call it a land grab.

After meeting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at his shell-battered headquarters in the West Bank, an Egyptian mediator said he felt encouraged by the former guerrilla leader and now Israel needed to do more.

Egypt, the first Arab state to forge a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, has been trying to secure a truce from Palestinian factions seen as crucial to reviving talks.

"We hope that Israel should exert parallel efforts to those exerted by the Palestinian Authority, by us and by the international community," Mr Osama el-Baz, political adviser to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, told reporters. Mr Arafat's Palestinian Authority favours a ceasefire, but Cairo's mediation efforts have met resistance from militants sworn to destroy Israel.

Hopes of success took another blow on Tuesday when Israeli helicopters launched their first missile strike in over two months to try to kill a leader of the key Hamas faction. The attack failed but the Islamic group vowed to strike back.

"There is no possibility of talking about a truce," Hamas official Mr Said Siam told Reuters in Gaza today.

Israel has said it would not sign a formal ceasefire but could respond favourably if all attacks on Israelis stop. Militants have suggested stopping some attacks, but not on soldiers or settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.