Tue, May 13, 2003 - Page 1 News List

Israel imposes ban on travel in Gaza despite vow to US


Israel reimposed a travel ban on the Gaza Strip yesterday despite its pledge to US Secretary of State Colin Powell for humanitarian gestures towards the Palestinians as part of a new peace plan he is promoting.

After talks with Powell in Jerusalem on Sunday, the Israeli government agreed to free 180 Palestinian detainees and allow 25,000 Palestinian workers 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 laborers to travel in and out.

"I think we are very serious in our intentions to advance towards peace ...which include making gestures to the Palestinian side," Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said.

"But we have always said that any gestures to ease the lives of Palestinians will be carried out only if they don't harm the security of our citizens," he told Israel Radio.

Israel and the Palestinians have been locked in daily violence since the start in September 2000 of an uprising for independence.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat warned that Israel's unwillingness to accept the road map "indicates a road to military escalation and further deterioration on the ground."

The question of whether Israel will accept the peace plan, as Palestinian leaders have, may be clarified only when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sees US President George W. Bush in Washington on May 20.

It was not clear how long the Gaza ban would stay in effect. Palestinians also noted that travel restrictions on their movements between cities in the West Bank, edicts imposed after suicide bombings in Israel, were still in place.

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

After meeting yesterday morning with envoys of the EU, UN and Russia -- the other members of the mediating quartet -- Powell flew to Cairo to seek Arab support for the peace plan and Palestinian reform.

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