Israel plans positive gestures to back Palestinian prime minister

Monday, April 21, 2003

JERUSALEM Israel has drafted a series of measures to demonstrate its support for Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

Officials said the measures would include the release of Palestinian prisoners, the withdrawal of troops from some cities in the West Bank and easing of restrictions on Palestinian freedom of movement. The government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also plans to unfreeze about $450 million to the Palestinian Authority.

The measures would be implemented within days after the approval of Abbas's new Cabinet. Abbas, however, has failed to obtain approval for the Cabinet from the ruling Fatah Central Committee and on Saturday threatened to resign. Abbas's Cabinet includes a new interior minister meant to replace a loyalist of PA Chairman Yasser Arafat.

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Officials said a Sharon envoy presented the proposed goodwill gestures to the Bush administration last week during a visit to Washington. They said Sharon has also expressed willingness to meet Abbas once he takes office.

The United States has urged Israel to launch a series of measures to help Abbas, regarded as a reformer by both Israel and the United States. The administration also plans to release the roadmap for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian war and the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Over the weekend, Israeli authorities captured what officials said were at least six Palestinian would-be suicide bombers. They said the bombers came from the West Bank and that one of them surrendered to Israel's military. Two of the would-be suicide bombers were women.

Overnight Sunday, Israeli armored forces battled Palestinian insurgents in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah in a military operation meant to blow up tunnels for the smuggling of weapons to and from Egypt. Five Palestinians were killed in a firefight that included the launching of Palestinian anti-tank missiles toward Israeli armored units. The Palestinian casualties included Mohammed Abu Shamleh, Hamas military commander in Rafah.

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