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Israeli military says it will further ease restrictions on Palestinian travel in West Bank

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Israel's military announced Monday it plans to further ease restrictions on Palestinian travel in the West Bank, delivering what appeared to be a first in a series of gestures requested by the U.S. as part of renewed peace talks.

Indirect U.S.-mediated negotiations began earlier this month, with a U.S. envoy shuttling between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Palestinian officials say the Obama administration has asked for Israeli confidence-building steps, including removing more West Bank checkpoints, releasing some Palestinian prisoners and allowing more goods into blockaded Gaza.

An Israeli government official, speaking on condition of anonymity to comply with briefing regulations, said the easing of restrictions came in the context of the peace talks. He gave no timeline, but at least one of the changes was in effect Monday with the opening of a road.

For the past decade, since the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising, Israel has severely restricted Palestinian movement with hundreds of obstacles and checkpoints, as well as its West Bank separation barrier. The restrictions were meant to keep out Palestinian attackers and largely remained in place after the uprising ended several years ago.

In recent months, Israel has made it easier for Palestinians to travel in the West Bank, and Monday's announcement signaled a further step in that direction. However, about 85 manned roadblocks and more than 400 unmanned obstacles, like metal gates and earthen mounds, remain in place, according to U.N. figures.

Asked to comment on the Israeli measures, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat noted that Israel has yet to meet international commitments it has made, such as halting all settlement construction.

"We will see what happens on the ground and judge it," Erekat said.

The military said it would open two segments of West Bank roads to Palestinian motorists, remove 60 unmanned roadblocks, ease access of foreign tourists to the biblical city of Bethlehem and make it easier for Israeli Arabs to drive to West Bank towns.

Bethlehem's mayor, Victor Batarseh, said that if implemented, the decision would help improve the local economy, which relies heavily on tourism. One of the road segments mentioned in the military announcement was open to Palestinian motorists Monday and significantly shortened the hour-long drive from Bethlehem to the town of Ramallah.

The Gaza Strip has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since the Islamic militant group Hamas seized the territory three years ago. West Bank residents are not allowed to travel to Gaza and require permits to enter Israel and east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians seek as a capital. Within the West Bank, large areas are off-limits to Palestinians, including Israeli settlements and much of the Jordan Valley.

As part of the Gaza blockade, Israel has allowed only basic foods and other humanitarian supplies into the territory but has banned construction materials, arguing they could be used by Hamas for attacks. The U.S. and others have urged Israel to allow more goods into Gaza.

On Monday, Israel permitted the import of 250 tons of cement for a U.N. housing project of 150 apartments, said a U.N. spokesman, Adnan Abu Hasna.

The project was started before the Hamas takeover but was halted when the blockade began. Abu Hasna said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pressed Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak to give permission during a March visit to the region.

Palestinian border officials said Monday's was the biggest shipment of cement since the start of the blockade.

In a related development, Israel's minister of intelligence and nuclear energy, Dan Meridor, called on the world to deal with Iran before turning its attention to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. He said removing the threat that Iran could use its nuclear program to make weapons would aid U.S. popularity in the region and help Mideast peacemaking efforts.

Also Monday, Israel said it arrested 10 Palestinians accused of transferring millions of shekels, or hundreds of thousands of dollars, from the militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups in Gaza to Palestinians serving terms in Israeli prisons. Among those detained was an east Jerusalem lawyer caught trying to enter Israel with more than $100,000 in cash, the Shin Bet security service said.

It said the prisoners are serving sentences on security offenses, including deadly attacks on Israelis.

The arrests took place in April and May, but were subject to a gag order until Monday, when four of the suspects were indicted in a Jerusalem court. They were charged with money laundering and violating terrorism and tax laws.

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Associated Press Writers Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, Diaa Hadid in Gaza City and Karoun Demirjian in Jerusalem contributed to this report.