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Rice Wins Concessions From Israel, Paving the Way Towards Peace Agreement

Israel and the Palestinians agreed Sunday to a series of "concrete steps" aimed at paving the way for a final peace agreement later this year, beginning with Israel's pledge to remove some West Bank roadblocks.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, visiting the region for the second time this month in hopes of energize faltering talks, said the moves "constitute a very good start to improving" a Palestinian economy crippled by the Israeli restrictions.

Under the plan that Rice announced, Israel will remove about 50 roadblocks, upgrade checkpoints to speed up the movement of Palestinians through the West Bank and give Palestinians more security responsibility in the town of Jenin with an eye toward looking at "other areas in turn."

The Israelis also pledged to increase the number of travel and work permits it gives Palestinians and to support economic projects in Palestinian towns.

In return, the Palestinians promised to improve policing of Jenin "to provide law and order, and work to prevent terror," according to a State Department statement released shortly before Rice spoke.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad consented to the steps at a joint meeting with Rice earlier Sunday. They agreed to pursue the measures with "special, immediate emphasis and work," the statement said.

"We've been told that this is going to start and, hopefully even be completed in a relatively short period of time," Rice told reporters. "I am expecting it to happen very, very soon."

"We will be monitoring and verifying," she added.

The agreement includes:

-removing 50 travel barriers in and around Jenin, Tulkarem, Qalqiliya and Ramallah.

-dismantling of one permanent roadblock.

-deploying 700 Jordanian-trained Palestinian police in Jenin and allowing them to take delivery of armored vehicles.

-raising the the number of Palestinian businessmen allowed into Israel to 1,500 from 1,000.

-increasing the number of work permits for Palestinian laborers by 5,000 from its current number of 18,500.

-building new housing for Palestinians in 25 villages.

-connecting Palestinian villages to the Israeli power grid.

-Israeli support for large-scale economic development programs and encouragement of foreign investment.

Neither Barak nor Fayyad commented on the developments when they appeared at a brief photo opportunity with Rice after their meeting.

One Palestinian official said he welcomed any improvement, but that Israel's moves were "too little, too late."

"We want Israel to move quickly in removing these obstacles that make no sense and make the lives of the Palestinians difficult," said Samir Abdullah, the Palestinian planning minister.

Israel maintains hundreds of checkpoints, roadblocks and other travel restrictions in the West Bank, and says they are needed to stop suicide bombers. The Palestinians say the restrictions are excessive and have stifled their economy. They have made removal of the checkpoints a priority as the two sides, with U.S. backing, try to negotiate a peace agreement by year's end.

Rice had said she was looking for "meaningful" steps to put in place the stalled U.S.-supported plan that envisions the creation of an independent Palestinian state through concessions on both sides.

"There has not been enough momentum," she said. "This is a start in terms of delivering on some of those obligations."