JERUSALEM – Israel dismantled on Wednesday a military checkpoint that had significantly impeded Palestinian travel in the West Bank in an apparent goodwill gesture a day before President Barack Obama's much-anticipated address to the Muslim and Arab world.
But Palestinians said the removal of a major obstacle on the road from Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian government, to the northern West Bank didn't address the broader need to ease the movement of people and goods in the Palestinian territories.
Israel maintains hundreds of roadblocks throughout the West Bank, saying they are needed to prevent the movement of militants.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under heavy U.S. pressure to get peacemaking back on track by recognizing the Palestinians' right to a state of their own and halting settlement expansion in the West Bank.
Netanyahu's reluctance to do either has left him scrambling to make overtures toward the U.S. Taking down checkpoints is a major Palestinian and international demand because the obstacles stifle economic recovery in the West Bank. Dismantling them also fits into Netanyahu's plan to focus peace overtures on promoting the Palestinian economy, rather than statehood.
"Israel does not seek stagnation," government spokesman Mark Regev said. "We want to see momentum in the process between us and the Palestinians."
Palestinian traffic passed through the area of the Bir Zeit checkpoint unhindered as Israeli soldiers removed the roadblock. A crane took away concrete slabs that had been blocking the road and placed them on a flatbed truck, while a bulldozer cleared away barbed wire and other debris.
Under U.S. pressure, Israel also has begun dismantling some two dozen illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank — sparking a spate of attacks from hardline Jewish settlers. On Wednesday, security forces dismantled two tiny outposts, including one that was rebuilt after it was taken down last week.
In the northern West Bank, a group of Jewish settlers set fire to Palestinian agricultural fields, destroying some 30 olive trees — an important source of income for rural Palestinians.
Palestinian fire fighter Ramiz Dila said Israeli soldiers pushed back some 20 young Jewish men to a nearby hardline settlement as his colleagues quelled the flames. Israel's army had no immediate comment.
Obama was in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, before heading to Cairo on Thursday to deliver a speech meant to repair U.S. relations with the Muslim world and to rally moderate forces in the region.
Veteran Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Israeli action Wednesday did not go far enough because Israel continues to stymie movement in the West Bank and blockade crossings into the Gaza Strip, ruled by the militant Palestinian Hamas group.
"The question here is not removing a roadblock here and a roadblock there," Erekat said. He said the "system" of closures must end. "That's what needs to be removed."