Olmert Orders Roadblocks Removed

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert instructed the security establishment yesterday to implement steps to make daily Palestinian life easier, including allowing a greater volume of merchandise to be taken across checkpoints, shortening lines at roadblocks, and issuing an increased number of permits allowing merchants, VIPs and international organization workers to cross into Israel.

Olmert told the heads of the security establishment, Shin Bet security service and police that he hopes the steps will be carried out by the Muslim holiday of Id al-Adha, which takes place next week.

"My hope is that by the Id al-Adha holiday, the Palestinian population will feel a significant improvement in the fabric of their lives," Olmert said. "That doesn't mean that we are relaxing in our war on terror, and we will continue to fight those who instigate terror with the same determination."

The decision comes in the wake of the meeting Saturday between Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen).

"I want to make Palestinian lives significantly easier," Olmert said at the beginning of the meeting. "I won't say one thing to Abu Mazen at night and then carry out something different during the day."

After the initial steps are taken, Israel will remove 49 roadblocks in two stages, subject to a final decision by government officials within a week. The plan, which was developed by Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh, calls for the removal of 27 roadblocks in the first stage and the rest in the second. All but one are dirt roadblocks that separate groups of Palestinian villages from the large West Bank cities. The more established checkpoint slated for removal is located in the northern section of the Jordan Valley road, which will be used as a crossing point for merchandise.

In addition, Israel Defense Forces troops will no longer thoroughly examine every vehicle at 16 of the more established roadblocks, a change due to take place relatively soon. There are about 400 roadblocks in the West Bank.

Israel also plans to build several bypass tunnels below Route 60, which passes through Israel and the West Bank, to make Palestinian movement easier and reduce friction between the Palestinians and the Israel Defense Forces. The Prime Minister's Office said the tunnels, which are expected to cost NIS 70 million, will reduce friction on West Bank roads by 40 percent.

Olmert said at the meeting that budgetary concerns should not be taken into consideration.

"If a Palestinian has to stand for three hours, then we will add lanes in the [security] check," he said.

However, security officials said yesterday they doubted whether a budget would really be approved for the ambitious, long-term tunnel project, which has been on the table for two years without significant progress.

GOC Central Command Yair Naveh, who presented the plan for the bypass tunnels, objected to the removal of the roadblocks.

"These are risks that we cannot allow ourselves," he told Olmert. "You're making your calculations and taking away from me one of my capabilities."

Olmert responded that other officials have said that the plan "involves a minimum of risk."

Defense Minister Amir Peretz told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee yesterday that reducing the number of roadblocks in the West Bank is part of Israel's approach to security because the easier the Palestinians' lives become, the fewer sources of unrest there will be.

MK Silvan Shalom (Likud) opposed the removal of roadblocks, saying they are meant to prevent terrorism and their absence could lead to a renewal of terror.

Peretz also released a statement after the security officials' meeting with Olmert saying that the central principle of the security officials' plan lies in adopting a different approach to the West Bank than to the Gaza Strip. The main change that will take place in Gaza will be the establishment of new observation systems at the Karni crossing and the extension of its hours of operation: There will now be two shifts, allowing for an increase in the movement of goods. In addition, the Erez crossing will be augmented and the Kerem Shalom crossing for goods will be reopened.

Meanwhile, Peretz told the foreign affairs committee yesterday that he will soon make a decision on a suggestion by a Defense Ministry advisory body that some of the illegal outposts in the West Bank be removed. He said the Yesha Council of settlements has agreed to the evacuation of some of the outposts.