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Even Under Threat of More Terror, Israel Eases Palestinian Conditions

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Israel is taking steps to improve the living conditions of Palestinians, even as it braces for the possibility of more violence.

The first steps taken early this week were designed to ease the plight of Palestinians in the West Bank. At the same time, however, Israel arrested a Hamas military leader on its most wanted list and remained on a heightened alert for a possible terror attack.

On Monday, Israel called off curfews in several Palestinian cities in the West Bank. The Israeli army lifted the curfew on Kalkilya “indefinitely” and also called off curfews in Tulkarm and Hebron, Israel Radio reported.

Talks between Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Palestinian officials also appeared likely early this week as Israel prepared to transfer some $15 million in frozen tax revenue to the Palestinian Authority.

“I hope that today or tomorrow there will be a certain meeting over security issues, and if it becomes clear that there is a beginning of cooperation here, then I believe that we are on the road,” Ben-Eliezer told Army Radio on Monday.

Earlier reports had said that Ben-Eliezer might hold talks with Palestinian Authority Interior Affairs Minister Gen. Abdel Razak Yiheyeh.

According to Army Radio, Ben-Eliezer has drawn up a proposal aimed at gradually granting the Palestinians security control in areas that remain terror-free. If the Palestinian Authority security forces act against terrorism, Israel would respond by easing economic restrictions and sanctions.

In addition to the curfews, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered other restrictions on the Palestinians eased.

According to a government statement, Sharon approved partially lifting roadblocks, expanding fishing zones in the Gaza Strip, improving passage of Palestinian public transportation and granting 12,000 Palestinians permits to work in Israel.

The statement said Sharon had appointed Foreign Minister Shimon Peres as the “minister responsible for coordinating all activities to assist the civilian population in the Palestinian Authority.”

But even as these steps were being taken, the reality of the ongoing violence echoed.

On July 26, four Israelis, including a soldier and three members of a single family, were killed in two ambushes by a band of Palestinian gunmen.

Israel’s justice minister condemned rioting by Jewish mourners Sunday during the soldier’s funeral.

Fifteen Israeli police officers and border police officers were injured when funeral-goers in Hebron began scuffling with security forces during the funeral procession for Staff Sgt. Elazar Leibowitz. Four Israelis were detained in connection with the unrest.

Israel also asked the Palestinian Authority for cooperation in investigating the Palestinian claim that a 14-year-old Palestinian girl was killed by Israeli fire during the funeral procession, Israel Radio reported.

On Sunday, Israel captured a Hamas military leader on its most wanted list.

Hussein Abu Kwaik and his top lieutenant were captured during an operation near Bethlehem on Sunday, according to the Israeli army. Abu Kwaik long had been on Israel’s most wanted list. In March, Israel killed his wife and three of his children in what appeared to be an assassination attempt gone awry.

In the Gaza Strip, Palestinians fired mortars at the Israeli settlement of Neveh Dekelim, damaging fire trucks at a nearby fire station.

At the same time, Israel remained on heightened alert for a possible terror attack. Searches were under way near the frontier between Israel and the West Bank on Monday after a suspicious man was spotted near a Jewish settlement.

The man was wearing an Israeli army uniform and carrying a bag, and security forces suspected that he was a Palestinian trying to infiltrate into Israel, reports said.

Near Hebron, Israeli security forces arrested a Palestinian suspected of involvement in last Friday’s ambush. The man, Taleb Mahmoud Hamed Abu-Faner, is an activist with the Al-Aksa Brigade, which claimed responsibility for the attack. The brigade is an armed wing of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement.

In another development, Israeli officials downplayed reports of contacts among Palestinian groups, including Fatah and Hamas, to possibly declare a halt to attacks inside Israel.

Palestinians said an airstrike last week that killed Hamas military chief Salah Shehadeh had scuttled plans by Fatah to declare a cease-fire. According to reports, Hamas had also been involved in such contacts.

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