JERUSALEM – Israel has agreed to lift travel restrictions in parts of the West Bank in coming weeks, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) said Wednesday, in what would be the strongest signal yet to Palestinians that a cease-fire with Israel is beginning to pay off.
Israel also said it would allow some Palestinian workers to enter Israel from Gaza and the West Bank to work.
Abbas made the announcement after returning to the West Bank from a Mideast summit in Egypt, where he and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) declared an end to four years of bloodshed. Freedom of travel would greatly improve the lives of Palestinians, as the roadblocks have decimated their economy.
Abbas said Israel had assured him that travel bans would soon be eased and several major checkpoints will be removed as part of its military withdrawal from five Palestinian towns in the coming weeks.
"We agreed that they [Israelis] will pull out of five Palestinian ... cities and surrounding areas, and also on the removal of roadblocks, which will be manned by the Palestinian forces," Abbas said.
A senior Israeli military official confirmed that several roadblocks would be removed as part of the handover of security responsibility for the five towns to the Palestinians. The official did not list them. Roadblocks between the West Bank (search) and Israel are to remain in place.
Israeli army checkpoints ring all West Bank towns, where soldiers inspect documents of those who seek to pass. Long lines often form at the checkpoints, and troops often close them to seal off towns.
Israel says it needs the checkpoints to stop suicide bombers and other attackers. However, in a recent report, the World Bank cited Israeli restrictions on the flow of people and goods as the main cause of economic hardship in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where nearly half of Palestinians live on less than $2 a day.
The truce declaration has raised hopes of ending the violence and restarting peace moves. Israel is to hand over security control in Jericho, Tulkarem, Qalqiliya, Bethlehem and Ramallah in the next three weeks. Abbas and Sharon agreed to the timetable Tuesday.
A second meeting between the two men, to take place at Sharon's Sycamore Ranch in southern Israel, could take place "in the coming days or a week," said Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Sharon. Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said the meeting would take place within a week.
However, the threat of violence remains. The militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad have said they are not bound by the truce, and Palestinian officials Wednesday warned that the Lebanese group Hezbollah may try to derail the cease-fire.
A European Union official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Palestinians had raised their concerns about Hezbollah during meetings with U.S. and EU officials. Israel has long accused Hezbollah of supporting Palestinian militants.
Israel and Hezbollah fought a bloody 18-year guerrilla war in south Lebanon before Israel's pullout in 2000, and Hezbollah continues to call for Israel's destruction.
In the West Bank, Palestinian gunmen twice attacked Israeli motorists, causing no injuries. A 22-year-old Palestinian was seriously wounded while walking near a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip; the gunfire came from the direction of the settlement. The Israeli army said it had fired warning shots at four people who entered an unauthorized area, but could not confirm hitting anyone.
Elsewhere in Gaza, a Hamas militant was killed in a blast in the Khan Younis refugee camp. Hamas officials said the man was handling explosives.
Abbas has been working to prevent attacks by militants on Israel and planned to meet Thursday with leaders of armed groups in Gaza.
Sharon has promised to release Palestinian prisoners and end Israel's pursuit of wanted Palestinian militants.
In another gesture, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz announced measures to alleviate conditions for some Palestinians, including allowing 1,000 Palestinians from the Gaza Strip to work in Israel and several hundred more to work at the Erez Industrial Zone between Israel and Gaza, the military said.
An additional 2,000 workers will be authorized to enter Israel from the West Bank.
Before violence erupted four years ago, tens of thousands of Palestinians worked in Israel. Now, just a few thousand have permits.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia met with West Bank security commanders and told them the Jericho pullout could take place within days, a top security official said.
The official said Israel had also turned over the names of 350 wanted militants. In exchange for amnesty from Israel, the militants must surrender their weapons to Palestinian forces and pledge not to carry out any violence.
Cease-fires have been declared before, but major changes in the region — chiefly, the death of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whom Israel accused of encouraging violence, and Sharon's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip this summer — have generated hopes that this one will stick.
Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice announced Wednesday she would meet in London early next month with senior U.N., Russian and European Union officials. The so-called Quartet will try to pump new life into their lagging road map designed to steer Israel and the Palestinians into peace talks.