Israel Under U.S. Pressure to Ease the Palestinians’ Lot by Naomi Segal

With Prime Minister Ariel Sharon about to make a visit to Washington to meet with President Bush, Israel is coming under American pressure to ease the situation of Palestinian citizens.

The U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, conveyed a message to Sharon this week that was critical of Israeli policies, including the army’s continued operations in densely populated areas of the Gaza Strip.

The message also reportedly criticized Israel for not following through on promises to ease the situation of the Palestinian civilian population, including easing travel restrictions between Palestinian cities.

While acknowledging Israeli concerns that terrorists might exploit relaxed restrictions to infiltrate into Israel, the United States reportedly asked Israel to reconsider whether all of its current closures are necessary.

In addition, according to Israeli media reports, the United States wants Israeli troops to withdraw from one or more West Bank cities. The army took control of the cities following a series of Palestinian terror attacks earlier this year.

On Sunday, Sharon approved a series of humanitarian measures to ease hardships on the Palestinians. The steps were likely to be implemented soon, Army Radio reported.

During consultations with Cabinet ministers Sunday, Sharon also agreed that Foreign Minister Shimon Peres renew contacts with Palestinian Authority officials, according to the report.

During the consultations, the coordinator of government activities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, was quoted as saying that 80 percent of the Palestinian population is living below the poverty line, and that 2 million Palestinians depend on aid from international humanitarian organizations.

But he said that there is no widespread hunger in the territories because Israel is allowing help to get through.

At another meeting later Sunday, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said Israel is under growing international pressure to ease the Palestinians’ situation, but “every time we lift a curfew, it is exploited by terrorists to advance an attack against us.”

As a case in point, Ben-Eliezer cited an attempted suicide bombing last Friday in Tel Aviv.

The bomber tried to enter a cafe near the city’s crowded beachfront promenade, but his explosives belt set off a metal detector at the door. A security guard at the cafe challenged him and the bomber bolted down the street toward the U.S. Embassy about 20 yards away. Israeli guards wrestled him to the ground and bound his arms and legs so he couldn’t detonate the explosives.

Police officials said massive casualties were averted by the Israelis’ courage.

Ben-Eliezer also said Sunday the time was now right for Israel to launch a serious political initiative that would “bypass” Yasser Arafat and help foster those in the Palestinian Authority who reject violence and are pressing for change.

In another development, Peres told the Cabinet on Sunday that Israel is currently experiencing a “silent blockade” in the world community.

Labor Minister Matan Vilnai said he felt hate toward Israel in Paris, while Cabinet minister Dan Meridor described a similar feeling while in London.

Peres said the daily dose of media reports about Israeli military actions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were to blame.

There were more such reports Sunday, when two Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli troops carrying out an anti-terror operation in Gaza.

In another incident that day, soldiers killed two armed Palestinians who were trying to infiltrate from Egypt into Yuval, a moshav in the Negev. Three soldiers were wounded in the clash that erupted after the infiltrators were spotted.

Palestinians sources said a 3-year-old boy was one of the two people who were killed in southern Gaza.

The army said the troops entered the Rafah refugee camp to search for tunnels used by Palestinians to smuggle arms and drugs into the Gaza Strip from Egypt. A number of tunnels were uncovered, the army commander in the Gaza Strip said.

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