Israel to Ease Restrictions on Workers from Territories

Israel has decided to ease restrictions that were imposed on Palestinian workers from the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the aftermath of a recent wave of terrorist incidents.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin announced the move Sunday after meeting with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat.

Joined by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the leaders met at a villa in a Casablanca suburb shortly before Morocco’s King Hassan officially opened a historic international conference to plan the economic future of the Middle East and North Africa.

Rabin had ordered the closure of Gaza and the West Bank as a security measure to ease the fears of Israelis following the Oct. 19 suicide bus bombing in the heart of Tel Aviv that claimed the lives of 22 victims and left more than 40 injured.

Despite the insistence of Israeli officials that the closure was a necessary step to prevent further terrorist attacks, Arafat had maintained that it represented economic warfare on the nascent Palestinian autonomy.

Aides to the PLO chairman said the success of the Casablanca conference would be threatened if the closure continued. They also said the closure was blocking the way for continued negotiations on implementing the Palestinian self-rule accord.

After meeting with Arafat, Rabin, who also serves as defense minister, told reporters that a gradual easing of the closure would begin Tuesday.

But he warned that the closure could be reimposed if Arafat did not crack down on the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement, which claimed responsibility for the bus bombing and other recent terror attacks on Israelis.

“Until we succeed at preventing murderous attacks,” the prime minister said, “we will feel free to do whatever is needed to protect the lives of Israelis.”

Israel meanwhile has arrested some 150 Hamas activists in response to the recent terror attacks, according to an Israel Radio report. At least half of those detained would be held without trial under emergency regulations, the report said.

Rabin also told reporters that Israel would work to accelerate the transfer of authority to the Palestinians for management of social policy in the West Bank in the areas of health, taxation, tourism and social welfare.

But he also said the success of the so-called “early empowerment” for Palestinians depends on foreign donor countries providing the necessary funds to administer these areas of social policy.

Rabin and Arafat also agreed to postpone negotiations on Palestinian elections, according to Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

The fifth round of negotiations was scheduled to begin Monday in Cairo, but was put off until next week because of the Casablanca economic conference.

Rabin and Arafat agreed to meet next week at the Erez border crossing between Israel and Gaza to discuss matters relating to implementation of Palestinian self-rule, including the elections.

Sunday’s talks between Rabin, Arafat and Peres represented the first time the three met since they were named co-winners of the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize in mid-October.

Israel’s participation at the Casablanca conference has been cited by observers as proof of the Jewish state’s growing acceptance in the Middle East.

Foreign Minister Peres, a driving force behind the conference, said at a news briefing Sunday that regional economic development would help eradicate the causes of the ongoing violence and terror launched by those opposed to the Middle East peace process.

“Israel should not remain an island of prosperity in a sea of poverty,” said Peres, who added that without economic cooperation, “there is no validity to the peace for the man in the street in Amman or in Gaza.”

The three-day Casablanca conference began Sunday — exactly three years after the start of the Madrid Conference, which launched the peace process between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

A second economic conference is scheduled for next April in Amman, Jordan.

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