Israel eases restrictions at two West Bank checkpoints

ATARA, West Bank Wed Jun 3, 2009 11:44am BST

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ATARA, West Bank (Reuters) - Israel ended inspections of Palestinian cars at two army roadblocks in the West Bank on Wednesday, taking a step towards meeting U.S. calls to ease Palestinian hardship in the occupied territory.

The move came a day after Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak met President Barack Obama in Washington and on the eve of a speech to the Muslim world the U.S. leader is to deliver from Egypt on Thursday.

An army spokesman said soldiers at the Atara checkpoint north of Ramallah would no longer stop Palestinian cars for inspection, allowing for a free flow of traffic between the city, a main business centre, and the northern West Bank.

He said a smaller checkpoint east of Ramallah had been removed completely.

The United States has long urged Israel to ease restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank, where the military maintains an extensive network of checkpoints and roadblocks that Palestinians describe as a source of daily humiliation.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he wants to remove "bureaucratic handicaps" that choke off the Palestinian economy whose development he says should be the focus of peace talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Abbas has rejected this approach and says renewing peace talks hinge on Netanyahu committing to Palestinian statehood, a stance backed by Obama, who is at also at odds with the Israeli leader over Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Wednesday's measures were not enough.

"They should lift the closure system. It's not about removing a roadblock here and a roadblock there," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.

Israel says its more than 600 checkpoints and roadblocks in the West Bank, along with a barrier it has built in the territory, help to keep Palestinian attackers out of its cities.

Palestinian businessmen say that unless Israel removes such obstacles, there is little chance the West Bank economy can improve.

"What is needed is for checkpoints to be uprooted. Cosmetic moves wont help much," said Palestinian businessman Mazen Sinokrot.

Also on Thursday, the Israeli army declared three checkpoints near the West Bank city of Nablus as inaccessible to Israelis, after confrontations between soldiers and Israeli left-wing activists protesting against inspection practices.

(Reporting by Mohammad Assadi; Writing by Joseph Nasr, Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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