Defense Minister Ehud Barak wants to replace permanent checkpoints in the West Bank with mobile ones, to ease restrictions on Palestinian traffic while still safeguarding Israel's security. However, he believes that such a change cannot be implemented immediately, as the Israel Defense Forces must first train a sufficient number of troops in the new methods, which is likely to take some time.
Barak held his first meeting with senior defense officials on the checkpoint issue last week.
More than two months ago, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert assigned Barak the job of easing movement restrictions in the West Bank to improve Palestinian daily life. Since then, the IDF has been conducting staff work on the issue, but has still not finished.
Barak is seeking a more permanent solution than simply removing a few checkpoints here and there. He therefore asked the defense establishment to explore new operational concepts, and promised to give it enough time to do so.
While Barak says he favors improving Palestinians' lives, his overriding commitment is to Israel's security. Barak fears that if a suicide bombing were to originate from an area where checkpoints had been removed, this would stymie further progress; he would therefore like to ensure that a workable alternative is in place before removing any checkpoints.
Olmert, who met yesterday with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, told him that the staff work on the checkpoint problem has not yet been completed. However, a government source said that he hoped the defense establishment would soon present its recommendations to the prime minister.
According to the most recent report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, issued last week, there are currently 539 barriers to movement in the West Bank, including 86 manned checkpoints and 453 unmanned roadblocks. The army is focusing on removing some of the unmanned roadblocks, which close off certain entrances to Palestinian towns and villages, to channel traffic to and from them onto specific roads.
The first part of the Olmert-Abbas meeting, which took place at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem, was devoted to the current situation in the territories. Olmert thanked Abbas for PA forces' success in rescuing an IDF officer from a mob in Jenin on Monday.
Abbas urged Olmert to help him move forward with a plan prepared by the U.S. security coordinator, General Keith Dayton, for strengthening and training the security forces loyal to Abbas and deploying them throughout the West Bank.
Olmert promised that as soon as Israel gets the details from Dayton, it will decide whether to allow Abbas' forces to receive the arms and military equipment they seek.
The two also discussed Hamas' smuggling of arms from Egypt to Gaza, and Abbas expressed interest in the idea of digging a canal along the Gaza-Egypt border to make such smuggling more difficult. Olmert responded that Israel had examined this idea before and concluded that it entailed serious engineering difficulties. The two decided to reconvene a multilateral committee comprised of representatives from Israel, the PA, Egypt and the United States to discuss other ideas for dealing with the problem.
The PA chairman also asked Olmert to release additional Palestinian prisoners, and Olmert said he would consider the request.
In addition, Abbas updated the premier on implementation of an agreement under which Israel promised to cease hunting wanted men from his Fatah faction if they turned in their arms. According to Israeli security sources, not all the wanted men have turned in their arms, but there is as yet no information indicating that they remain involved in terror.
During the second half of the meeting, the two leaders met privately, without their aides, to discuss the "agreement of principles" that they will present at an international peace conference in November. The talks focused on the core issues of the conflict: borders, Jerusalem and refugees.
Olmert believes that the two will need another one or two meetings before they are ready to turn the issue over to their aides, who will then draft a more detailed agreement.
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