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Israel reopens Bethlehem, blames Arafat for violence

JERUSALEM, Aug. 27 (JTA) — Israel has lifted an internal closure that it imposed four weeks ago on the West Bank town of Bethlehem. Israel had imposed similar internal closures on other West Bank cities in the wake of a July 30 twin suicide bombing in Jerusalem that killed 14 Israelis. But those closures had been lifted before this week. A general closure sealing off the West Bank and Gaza Strip from Israel remains in effect. The closure of Bethlehem had drawn international criticism, especially from Christian groups who said some pilgrims had encountered difficulty gaining access to visit what is believed to be the birthplace of Jesus. The Vatican’s envoy to Israel called on the Israeli Foreign Ministry earlier this week to lift the blockade of the city. Israel had maintained the closure of Bethlehem because Israeli security officials believed that suspected leaders of the Islamic militant group Hamas and those who planned the July 30 attack were hiding in the city. Before lifting the closure on Wednesday, Israeli security forces rounded up some 15 Palestinians suspected of hostile activities against Israel. Israel Radio reported that the 15 were believed to belong to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, another militant group. Bethlehem was relatively quiet Wednesday, following several days of clashes earlier this week in which Israeli troops fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse stone-throwing Palestinians who were demonstrating against the closure. In the wake of the Jerusalem attack last month, Israel called on the Palestinian Authority to crack down on Islamic militants, a move the self-rule government has rejected. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking during a visit to Seoul, South Korea, accused Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat of instigating violence in order to heighten tensions. “We have detailed information that the Palestinian Authority is encouraging street violence,” Netanyahu told reporters. In a related development Wednesday, Israel shut down the offices of a Hamas charity operating near the West Bank town of Hebron. Israeli officials said they had found materials inciting violence against Israel during a search of the facility. While he described the situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as very tense, the Israel Defense Force chief of staff said Tuesday, however, that he does not think an “explosion” in the territories is imminent. “It seems the sides are waiting for the pending visit of the U.S. secretary of state,” Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak told reporters after appearing before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. “However, there is no doubt that there is tension and an accumulation of resentment and pressures in the territories, creating a reality which could lead to an explosion.” After U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross visited the region earlier this month, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright indicated that she would soon travel to the Middle East. But her trip is conditioned on improved security ties between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. On Tuesday, Arafat said he believed that those ties had improved to the extent that Albright should make the visit. Asked by reporters whether there was enough security cooperation for Albright to visit, Arafat was quoted as responding, “Definitely, and we have a witness, an American witness.” Representatives from the CIA have been taking part in contacts between Israeli and Palestinian security officials that were arranged during Ross’ visit. Last week, Arafat held two days of “national unity” talks that included leaders of the militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements. During those talks, according to an aide to Arafat, the Palestinian Authority asked Hamas to halt attacks against Israeli targets. Hamas issued a statement Tuesday rejecting the request, saying it viewed armed struggle as a legitimate expression of its resistance to the Israeli-Palestinian accords. Israeli and Palestinian security forces also carried out Wednesday a joint disaster drill in the Gaza Strip. The sides worked together to clear away “victims” in simulated traffic and terrorist attacks. Israel said that despite the collaboration, there was still no intelligence or anti-terror cooperation.