RAMALLAH, West Bank - Israel's military said Monday that it planned to further ease restrictions on Palestinian travel in the West Bank, delivering what appeared to be a first in a series of gestures requested by the United States as part of renewed peace talks.
Indirect U.S.-mediated negotiations began earlier this month, with U.S. envoy George Mitchell shuttling between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Palestinian officials say the Obama administration has asked for Israeli confidence-building steps, including removing more West Bank checkpoints, releasing some Palestinian prisoners, and allowing more goods into the blockaded Gaza Strip.
An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the easing of restrictions came in the context of the peace talks. He gave no timeline, but at least one change was in effect Monday with the opening of a road.
For a decade, since the second Palestinian uprising broke out, Israel has severely restricted Palestinian movement with hundreds of obstacles and checkpoints, as well as its West Bank separation barrier. The restrictions aimed to keep out Palestinian attackers and largely stayed in place after the uprising ended several years ago.
In recent months, Israel has made it easier for Palestinians to travel in the West Bank, and Monday's announcement signaled a further step. However, about 85 manned roadblocks and more than 400 unmanned obstacles, such as metal gates and earthen mounds, remain in place, according to U.N. figures.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Israel had yet to meet international commitments it had made, such as halting all settlement construction. "We will see what happens on the ground and judge it," he said.
The military said it would open two segments of West Bank roads to Palestinian motorists, remove 60 unmanned roadblocks, ease access of foreign tourists to Bethlehem, and make it easier for Israeli Arabs to drive to West Bank towns. Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh said the move would help improve the local economy.
Gaza has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas seized the territory in 2007. West Bank residents are not allowed to travel to Gaza and require permits to enter Israel and East Jerusalem.
Israel has allowed only basic foods and other humanitarian supplies into Gaza but has banned construction materials. On Monday, Israel permitted the import of 250 tons of cement for a U.N. housing project, said a U.N. spokesman, Adnan Abu Hasna.