Israel to relax restrictions on Palestinians Moves announced as peace talks reopen in U.S.


JERUSALEM -- Israel said it will release 800 Palestinians from prison and ease other measures "to improve the atmosphere" of the peace talks scheduled to resume today in Washington.

Israel said it will gradually open some roads blocked off by the army because of disturbances, open some Palestinian houses sealed as punishment more than five years ago and allow Palestinians over age 55 to enter the country without a special permit.

Israeli ministers, speaking after their weekly Cabinet meeting yesterday, said their negotiators also will have new proposals to present at the peace talks.

"As somebody who knows what Israel will present tomorrow, I believe that a very, very rare opportunity has presented itself, for the Arabs and us, to advance the political process," Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin told Israel Radio.

The confidence-building actions were taken unilaterally by Israel with an eye to their impact in Washington and on bolstering the occupied territories' support for the peace talks.

A statement from the office of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin expressed hope that the moves "will have a positive contribution on the willingness of the Palestinian population to support" the peace talks.

"It depends on the Palestinians. We are saying to them, if you will respond positively, we will continue with these policies," Cabinet Minister Haim Ramon said in explaining the moves.

The start of the sixth round of the Mideast peace negotiations between Israel, the Palestinians and surrounding Arab countries was again on track after a dispute over the departure of the Palestinians was resolved yesterday.

The Palestinian delegation refused to leave the occupied territories Friday when four to six of their support staff members were told by Israeli border guards they would not be allowed to return for nine months. After the apparent intervention of U.S. diplomats, the delegation left yesterday afternoon for Amman, Jordan, where they were to leave for Washington.

Israel's surprise announcement yesterday was aimed at softening some of the harshest measures used in its occupation of the Palestinian territories captured in the 1967 war.

But the moves fall far short of the demands by Palestinian representatives, who have called for a release of all political prisoners and an end to what they call harsh military rule over nearly 2 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Hanan Ashrawi, spokeswoman for the Palestinian delegation, was quoted by Amman television as saying that the Israeli actions were "welcome" but should go further.

Israel's wholesale imprisonment of Palestinians, routine imposition of curfews on entire villages or areas, and tactics such as sealing homes have been severely criticized by international human rights groups.

If a Palestinian is suspected of a serious offense, military authorities quickly converge on the home of the suspect's family. They seal it off from the family's use with concrete and blocks, regardless of the family's knowledge or ignorance of the relative's actions.

Israel has said such measures were necessary to combat the intifada, the Palestinian uprising that began in late 1987. The statement re- leased by Mr. Rabin's office yesterday warned that Israel's intentions in that regard have not changed.

These steps "should not be taken to mean that this government is abandoning the fight against terrorism," the statement said. "Any violence or disturbance will be rigorously dealt with by the defense establishment."

It was unclear from Israel's announcement how quickly the measures will be taken. The prisoners to be released are those who have completed two-thirds of their sentences and were not involved in attacks that caused injury. Each case would be reviewed individually, the announcement said.

The same case-by-case review would be made of sealed houses to be reopened and streets to be unblocked. The government said the age limit for a Palestinian to enter Israel without a special permit will be dropped from 60 to 55.

"What we're trying to say to the Palestinians is, we are trying to create a new atmosphere and give a real chance to the peace process," Mr. Ramon, a close adviser to Mr. Rabin, told Israel Radio.

"I hope this is a beginning of the change, beginning of a new way," he said. "You cannot make peace without taking risks. It's better to take risks on the way to peace."

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