NABLUS, West Bank – Palestinian motorists drove freely out of this bustling West Bank city for the first time in six years Saturday after Israel eased long-standing travel restrictions in an apparent goodwill gesture ahead of a Muslim holiday.
The move was the latest sign of improving cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces in the West Bank. After years of fighting, Israel has begun to allow Palestinian security forces in the West Bank to maintain law and order in several major Palestinian population centers in recent months.
In contrast, Israel continues to battle militants in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Late Saturday, Israel launched a pair of airstrikes against rocket launchers in northern Gaza. One attack wounded two militants as they tried to fire a rocket, one critically, Palestinian officials said. The army confirmed the airstrikes.
In Nablus, Palestinians crowded into cars to take advantage of their newfound freedom.
"I hope this is permanent," said Wissam Hassouna, a 37-year-old grocer who planned to go for a drive with his wife and children.
"I really want to drive quickly in my car. I've never taken my car outside of Nablus before. I want to know what it feels like to speed," he said, as he waited in a line to pass through the Hawara checkpoint.
Hawara is among the biggest and most notorious Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank. Nablus residents typically wait in long lines to pass through the heavily fortified crossing on foot. Since 2002, motorists have needed a permit to pass through. On Saturday, soldiers freely waved cars through the crossing, prompting a rush of travelers.
Israel maintains hundreds of roadblocks and checkpoints throughout the West Bank, saying they are needed to control militants. The Palestinians say the travel restrictions have made life unbearable and stifled their economy.
At the height of the fighting, scores of suicide bombers and gunmen were dispatched from Nablus. The city of 170,000 is still ringed by eight checkpoints and road barriers.
Palestinian taxi drivers said they were told by Israeli soldiers that the measure was a goodwill gesture for the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, or the "Feast of the Sacrifice," set to begin on Monday.
The Israeli army said there had not been any special order for Hawara on Saturday, but that the improved traffic flow was part of a larger policy of trying to ease movement for Palestinians. It said traffic restrictions would be eased at two more Nablus checkpoints in the coming days, and new pedestrian lanes are planned at Hawara.
Elsewhere in the West Bank, two Jewish settlers turned themselves in to police after an Israeli human rights group filmed a shooting attack on Palestinian civilians.
Settlers went on a rampage last Thursday after Israeli forces evicted a group of squatters from a contested building in the city of Hebron.
The film shows what appears to be a Jewish settler firing shots at Palestinian stone throwers from close range. A second settler is seen throwing rocks at the Palestinians.
Police spokesman Danny Poleg said two men from the hardline settlement of Kiryat Arba near Hebron surrendered to police late Saturday.
Israel says it has been trying to improve living conditions in the West Bank to help bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Israel has been holding peace talks with Abbas for the past year.
At the same time, Israel has imposed a tough blockade on Gaza, which has been controlled by the Islamic militant group Hamas since June 2007. Israel considers Hamas a terrorist group and says the blockade is retaliation for repeated rocket attacks on southern Israel.
The sanctions have limited supplies of fuel, basic goods and even cash in Gaza, a coastal territory of 1.4 million people south of Israel. The cash crunch has prevented Abbas' West Bank government from transferring money to pay thousands of civil servants in Gaza.
On Saturday, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund warned that Gaza's severe cash shortage may cause local banks to collapse, the most serious warnings yet about Israel's refusal to allow new money infusions into Gaza banks.
Israeli officials were not immediately available for comment. But they have said the cash will start flowing when the rocket fire stops.
Palestinian militants fired another rocket Saturday into the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon. The army said the rocket landed in an empty industrial area and no one was hurt.
Late Saturday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered Israel's crossings with Gaza to remain closed Sunday in response to the rocket fire, his office said.