Israel to Ease Closure on Territories

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has decided to accept the army's recommendation and will announce tomorrow that the tight closure on the territories will be relaxed in several areas.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has decided to accept the army's recommendation and will announce tomorrow that the tight closure on the territories will be relaxed in several areas.

Mofaz has received conflicting advice from top Israel Defense Forces officers, who advocate this change, and the Shin Bet security service, which recommends keeping unabated pressure on the territories. The defense minister is likely to chart a middle path, easing fewer restrictions than the IDF has recommended.

The changes Mofaz is expected to make will be the first letup in the policy of closures and encirclement in over a month. Under the revised arrangement, several thousand Palestinian workers will be allowed to enter Israel, some of the activities in the industrial zones along the Green Line will be renewed, and restrictions on the transport of goods between Israel and the territories will be eased.

In addition, the siege of some Palestinian cities may be lifted where the threat of terrorism is considered to be low. The IDF general staff have warned that without a "political horizon" from the Palestinian perspective, and considering the growing pressure of closure and IDF offensive operations, the situation in the territories could further deteriorate - and reach an unprecedented level of violence.

Some officers on the general staff also support partial implementation of a plan that would allow more freedom of movement for Palestinians between the cities of the West Bank. (The plan was originally slated to be put into effect during the cease-fire last summer.)

The Shin Bet remains strongly opposed to easing any of the restrictions currently in place, arguing that the local terror networks are regrouping and planning attacks against Israeli targets on both sides of the Green Line.

One of the reasons Mofaz delayed his decision on the matter until now was his concern about a potential Palestinian attempt to disrupt the municipal elections scheduled in Israel tomorrow. He noted the attack against Likud headquarters in Beit Shean during party primaries last year and the attempt to send several booby-trapped vehicles into northern Israel during the Knesset elections in January.

The IDF has not reinforced its troop deployment in the Gaza Strip, despite the wave of attempts to infiltrate settlements there. The Southern Command expects these attempts to continue and even intensify in order to exploit the "success" of the Netzarim infiltration that took the lives of three soldiers on Friday. The religious fervor inspired by the month of Ramadan is also expected to fuel the motivation to attack Israeli targets. Some 200 attacks have been recorded in the Gaza Strip since the beginning of October, including five attempts to cross over the Green Line.

In response to the Netzarim attack, a large contingent of troops entered the A-Zahra neighborhood adjacent to the Jewish settlement and demolished three high-rise buildings, as well as a Palestinian police station. The 13-story apartment buildings were constructed prior to the intifada and were uninhabited. However, hundreds of residents in nearby dwellings were evacuated during the demolition and then allowed to return to their homes.

The IDF commander in this area, Colonel Yoel Strick, said yesterday that the buildings served as a lookout for terrorist organizations, which collected information on IDF movements in Netzarim. He added that the perpetrators of the Netzarim infiltration hid out in the buildings before the attack and one of them took refuge in the police station that was demolished.

11-year-old killed

An 11-year-old boy, Mohammed Hameida, was killed in Dir al-Balah yesterday when IDF troops opened fire on a group of houses, according to Palestinian sources. Another Palestinian, Rami Alian, 22, was killed in a gun battle with an IDF force between Kissufim and Gush Katif.

Three other Palestinians died yesterday from wounds sustained in earlier IDF operations. According to Shifa Hospital, Hamas activist Akram Bakhrun, 18, and Masoud A'ish, 35, both died yesterday after being injured by air force strikes last week in the Gaza Strip. In Nablus, Ismail Kadus, 39, a construction worker from the village of Burin, died yesterday at Rafidiyeh Hospital after being shot by the IDF when trying to reach Nablus on Saturday.