Israel cracks door for Palestinians Entry limits eased for some categories


JERUSALEM -- Palestinians began to see the first small fruits of their accord with Israel, as the government yesterday announced an easing of restrictions on entry into Israel and the release of some Palestinian prisoners.

Neither step went far enough for Palestinians. They have demanded free access into disputed East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War, and a release of all the estimated 9,500 to 13,000 Palestinians held in Israeli jails.

But "if this is a step that will be followed by other steps, then it is the right idea," said Ghassan al-Khatib, a member of the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks.

Palestinian leaders are worried more by the prospect of violence within their ranks, after the third assassination of a top leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Gaza.

At the funeral yesterday of Assad Saftawi, 58, speakers denounced the interfactional rivalry that may have been behind his slaying Thursday by hooded men. "Whoever assassinated [Saftawi] is a collaborator and a coward," the crowd chanted.

Both Palestinians and Israelis have expressed fears that violence could endanger their Sept. 13 accord giving Palestinians self-rule over the West Bank town of Jericho and the Gaza Strip. Palestinians also have warned of failed expectations, and some criticized the Israeli moves this week as too little.

"They are acting the same way, like the occupation is continuing," Saeb Erakat, a member of the Palestinian peace talks delegation, said yesterday.

"The restrictions on Jerusalem are a collective punishment. We signed an agreement and expected Jerusalem to be open," he said. "If they continue acting this way, it will be disastrous."

Since March, Israel has prohibited Palestinians from entering Israel and Jerusalem from the occupied territories, though the enforcement has been less than complete.

Israeli Police Minister Moshe Shahal said yesterday that entry to Israel will not be restricted starting Tuesday for women, men older than 40, or children younger than 16 and accompanied by a parent. He also said more working men will be allowed into Israel.

Neither the Police Ministry nor the Civil Administration, the two agencies dealing with entry from the occupied territories, could provide an estimate of how many Palestinians would be covered under the new rules. Partly under pressure from Israeli employers, Israel gradually issued work permits and exemptions after the closure. About 60,000 Palestinians now have permits, according to a spokesman for the Civil Administration.About 100,000 Palestinians were working in Israel and Jerusalem before the closure.

"This is a first step. There will be other steps," said a spokeswoman forthe Police Ministry, Tami Paul-Cohen.

A similar, gradual approach is being taken by Israel in releasing Palestinians imprisoned for their role in the intifada, or uprising. Israel agreed with Palestinian negotiators Thursday to release prisoners who are older than 50, younger than 18, female, or ill. Various sources estimated those categories include 700 to 800 prisoners.

The number of imprisoned Palestinians given by various officials varies from 9,500 to 13,000.

Palestinian sources said they expected all the nonviolent prisoners would be released after the signing of the Israel-PLO accord.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has said no one convicted of violent acts will be released, and has linked the release of the others to the pace of peace negotiations.

TTC That condition has become a political rallying point among the Palestinians. Families of the prisoners have staged a series of protests.

"What is the use of peace if it doesn't bring freedom for all Palestinians," said Salim Hussein al-Zrei, who was released Tuesday after serving 23 years in prison for opposing the Israeli occupation.

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