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Israel Retreats on Peace "Road Map"
Published on Monday, May 12, 2003 by Reuters
Israel Retreats on Peace "Road Map"
by Jonathan Wright
 

JERUSALEM - Israel has reimposed a travel ban on the Gaza Strip despite its pledge to visiting U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell of humanitarian gestures towards the Palestinians as part of a new peace plan.

After talks with Powell on Sunday, the Israeli government had agreed to release 180 Palestinian detainees and allow 25,000 Palestinian labourers to enter Israel, security sources said.

The moves were apparently in response to Powell's request that Israel and the Palestinians start practical, conciliatory steps even before Israel endorses the "road map" peace plan, which aims for an independent Palestinian state in 2005.

But shortly after the Israeli measures were announced, the army reinstated a ban on Palestinian travel in and out of the Gaza Strip, citing security concerns, effectively freezing a decision on Sunday to allow Gaza labourers to travel in and out.

It was not immediately clear how long the ban would stay in effect.

Early on Monday, Israeli troops killed two Palestinian militants in southern Gaza when they tried to lay a landmine against advancing tanks, the army and witnesses said.

Israeli political sources said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would likely meet Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas before the week's end to discuss the plan. They said security talks had secretly resumed between the sides last week.

Powell is on a Middle East tour seeking support for the plan, which the United States and fellow mediators gave to the parties after Abbas took office last month in a reform drive promoted by Washington.

Israel sealed off the West Bank and Gaza after Palestinians began their uprising for statehood in late 2000. Sharon demands Palestinians end violence and disarm militant groups before peace talks can resume.

ISRAEL RETICENT ON ROAD MAP

The bigger question of whether Israel will accept the peace plan, as Palestinian leaders have, may be clarified only when Sharon visits Washington to see U.S. President George W. Bush on May 20, diplomats said.

Right-wing parties dominating Sharon's coalition oppose dismantling Jewish settlements in the territories as well as granting sovereignty to the 3.5 million Palestinians there.

A senior U.S. official travelling with Powell said Bush remained committed to the plan as the best way to bring about an elusive Middle East settlement.

In talks with Abbas, who is widely known as Abu Mazen, Powell put the case for closing down the Palestinian militant groups behind suicide attacks on Israelis, the official said.

In public, the moderate Abbas responded that under his leadership there would be only one authority in the West Bank and Gaza, instead of the "armed chaos" he has criticised.

"He was much more explicit in private. He said he is not looking (just) for a ceasefire with the militant groups. He was looking to uproot the violence," the U.S. official said.

"He would start with dialogue and see if he could do it that way, but with a very firm commitment to go all the way and make sure there was a single authority."

But Palestinian militant groups have sworn to defy Abbas, who has yet to consolidate his power. e city center and looters roaming freely, the incident looks like another case of the ORHA struggling to cope.

Copyright Reuters Limited 2003

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