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Israel Eases Restrictions on Palestinians in Advance of Bush's Arrival

Israel eased some travel restrictions and Palestinians predicted a cease-fire soon, as both sides prepared for a crucial peace summit this week with President Bush.

The summit, set for Wednesday in the Jordanian resort of Aqaba (search), marks the official launch of the "road map" peace plan, the latest blueprint for ending 32 months of bloody Mideast violence and nudging the two warring sides into peace talks.

Israelis and Palestinians were considering Sunday how far they could go in the first stage of the three-phase, three-year plan, sponsored by the "Quartet" of mediators — the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia.

The United States was assuming the role of initiator, inviting the Palestinian and Israeli premiers to meet Bush and talk peace.

Palestinian, Israeli and U.S. officials have met in recent days to discuss the wording of possible declarations in which the two sides would recognize the other's right to statehood and security. The declarations, to be issued at the end of the Jordan summit, are required by the road map.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) told his Cabinet on Sunday he would likely make a declaration committing Israel to dismantling settlement outposts set up in violation of Israeli law, according to an official at the Cabinet meeting. Stopping settlement construction is a key element of the peace plan.

However, Sharon adviser Zalman Shoval said Monday that Israel did not consider all those outposts illegal and would only dismantle ones not deemed necessary for Israeli security.

Palestinians see the dozens of outposts on West Bank hilltops as efforts to further expand Jewish settlement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and create new obstacles to a Palestinian state. Hardline Israelis defend settlement building with religious and security arguments.

On the Palestinian side, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas' (search) government continued to work toward a declaration of a cease-fire on attacks against Israelis by militant groups like Hamas. While Israel demands a crackdown, including arrest of Hamas militants, Abbas prefers to negotiate a truce.

Israeli officials bent in Abbas' direction by saying that such a truce could be the first step of a concerted move against the violent groups. Meanwhile, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat told the London-based Arabic language Al-Hayat newspaper that a cease-fire could be completed in the coming days.

In Gaza Sunday, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian they say opened fire on them near the Kissufim crossing point. In another part of Gaza, soldiers critically wounded a 17-year-old Palestinian. The Israeli military had no comment on that incident.

After Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met Thursday, Israel announced it would cancel a closure that has kept all Palestinians, including laborers, out of Israel for more than two weeks. On Sunday, it eased the restrictions slightly.

About 3,500 Palestinians holding valid work permits passed on foot into Israel through the Erez crossing in Gaza on Sunday morning, according to Palestinian officials. Another 3,000 to 5,000 workers entered Israel from the West Bank, Palestinian Labor Minister Ghassan Khatib said.

More than 10,000 Palestinians crossed into Israel on Monday, according to Israel Radio.

But Palestinians trying to cross a checkpoint between the West Bank towns of Ramallah and Bir Zeit were forced to leave their cars behind and walk about 4 miles.

Before violence erupted in September 2000, more than 100,000 Palestinians worked in Israel, providing a key source of income for the Palestinian areas.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said that because of warnings of terror attacks originating in the West Bank, Israel had sent in reinforcements to cope with the threat.

However, Mofaz said the road map process "should be given a chance." He said Israel was prepared to return parts of the West Bank and Gaza to Palestinian control, but the Palestinians were not ready yet. "The ball is in the Palestinian court," he told Israel Radio.