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(photo credit: IDF [file])
Despite opposition within the IDF, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert approved in principle on Monday the removal of several West Bank roadblocks as part of a series of gestures aimed at boosting Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
Following an afternoon meeting with IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz and OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Yair Naveh, Olmert decided to remove 27 roadblocks. Security officials will determine when and where the barriers will be dismantled.
The defense establishment was also working Monday night to facilitate the upcoming transfer of 2,000 Kalashnikov rifles to Abbas's Force 17 "Presidential Guard" in the Gaza Strip via the Kerem Shalom Crossing.
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During the day, four Kassam rockets were fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip. One of them hit a strategic installation in southern Ashkelon.
A statement from Olmert's office said he approved streamlining checkpoints and removing roadblocks "to strengthen moderate [Palestinian] elements."
Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said inspections would be eased at 16 checkpoints, and that 27 unmanned roadblocks would be removed. Also, the Kerem Shalom and Karni crossing between Gaza and Israel will be upgraded "in order to accelerate the economy in Gaza and to reduce the poverty and despair," he said.
Peretz had initially wanted to immediately remove 59 roadblocks, but he changed his mind when Naveh voiced fierce objections and said such a move would impair the IDF's ability to thwart the almost-daily terrorist attacks.
"We must consider easing roadblocks in places where this does not pose a danger," Peretz said following an appearance at the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
The idea, a senior government official said, was to take measures that will be felt by the Palestinians immediately.
The plan has three main elements:
Upgrading key crossings with Gaza and the West Bank, and within the West Bank, to facilitate freer movement of people and goods.
Beginning the construction of overpasses in the West Bank designed to reduce "points of friction" between Palestinians and soldiers.
The Prime Minister's Office issued a statement saying the plan would be implemented in stages, with the goal being to make life easier for Palestinians not involved in terrorism.
The first stage of the plan includes increasing the volume of trucks going through the crossing points, reducing the wait times at the crossings, and issuing more travel permits for Palestinians who do not present a security risk.
The second stage is slated to see more roadblocks removed, with Olmert's office saying this would depend on developments in the field.
The third stage involves completion of the overpasses, most of them on Route 60, which runs the length of the West Bank from north to south. According to the plan, the overpasses will make it possible for the Palestinians to move easily between the main cities and towns without encountering roadblocks.
"The plan will contribute to improving the atmosphere, to strengthening the moderates, and to moving the civilian population away from cycle of terrorism," Olmert said.
He said that he hoped the Palestinian population would feel the changes by next week, in time for the Id al-Adha festival, and that Israel would continue to fight terrorism with "determination" at the same time.
Earlier, Peretz said that while several dozen Palestinian prisoners would be released before the upcoming Muslim holidays, it would be done for humanitarian reasons and not as part of a mass release of prisoners or connected to a deal for abducted IDF Cpl. Gilad Shalit.
Speaking to reporters at the Knesset, Peretz said, "Every year there has been a humanitarian release of prisoners around the Christmas and Id al-Adha holidays, and the government should carry out a similar good-will gesture this year."
"Some prisoners will be released in a controlled and careful manner, as this can enhance [the chances of] a future deal regarding the release of Gilad Shalit," he said.
Also on Monday, Military Intelligence's Research Division head Brig.-Gen. Yossi Baidatz told the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Israel would soon face a stronger and emboldened Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
"Hamas is gaining from the cease-fire," he said. "They are continuing to smuggle, dig tunnels and practice military tactics learned from Hizbullah; they are bolstering their ground defense systems, and they are getting help for their military plans from Syria and Iran. If this continues, we have to consider what conditions in the field will look like in a year's time."
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