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Israel Offers More to Palestinians (AP) By JILL LAWLESS JERUSALEM, ISRAEL 07/26/03 9:45 AM) Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A49535-2003Jul26.html
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JERUSALEM - A top Palestinian official expressed hope Saturday that Israel´s easing of restrictions on movement by Palestinians is a first step toward faster implementation of the "road map" peace plan.
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As Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas met with President Bush in Washington on Friday, Israel announced it would transfer two West Bank towns to Palestinian control and remove three roadblocks in Palestinian areas.
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In Gaza, Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Amr said the meeting between Bush and Abbas had been successful and called on Israel "to let the Palestinians see that there´s an essential or significant change in their everyday life."
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"It´s not easy to solve all these problems in just one visit to Washington," he said, adding that both sides "must work hard on the ground to implement the commitments of the road map."
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An Israeli army spokesman said Saturday that the troop pullouts would not be announced in advance. The cities to be handed over and the timing are to be discussed at a meeting between the Israeli defense minister and his Palestinian counterpart next week.
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Further handovers of cities and the dismantling of roadblocks are among moves demanded by the Palestinian Authority as part of implementing the road map. So far, Israel has pulled troops out of parts of the Gaza Strip and from the West Bank town of Bethlehem, but has been reluctant to do more until the Palestinians crack down on militant groups.
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Bloodshed has fallen sharply since Palestinian militants accepted a truce June 29, but progress has been slow on the peace plan, which calls for an end to violence and for Palestinian statehood by 2005.
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In Washington, Abbas urged Bush to pressure Israel to move more quickly. Bush told reporters that he welcomed the moves announced by the Israeli government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who is to meet with Bush in Washington on Tuesday.
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Abbas is under heavy political pressure to win Israeli concessions as a way of generating Palestinian public support for the peace plan and bolstering his own flagging political backing.
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His red-carpet treatment in Washington was designed to show U.S. support for the premier, who was appointed in April after Israeli and U.S. pressured the Palestinians to provide an alternative to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Israel and the United States accuse Arafat of supporting terrorism and undermining peace moves.
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Israel´s statement Friday did not break new ground on an issue that Palestinians say is a top priority: a mass release of Palestinian prisoners held for alleged involvement in terrorism.
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Israel has agreed only to free several hundred of the roughly 7,700 Palestinians it holds, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants. Sharon´s office said that 250 prisoners had been let go so far and that a ministerial committee would meet in early August to consider widening the category of inmates eligible.
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Bush said he would bring the issue up with Sharon but made clear he wouldn´t push Sharon to issue a blanket amnesty.
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Amr, the Palestinian information minister, said he hoped at least 600 prisoners would be freed soon.
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On Friday, Israel also said it would continue to dismantle illegal settler outposts in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and "consider ways to minimize hardship" caused by Israel´s construction of a security fence near the border with the West Bank, a structure the Palestinians oppose.
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Israel has dismantled about a dozen outposts, but a roughly equal number of new ones have sprung up. Israel also has not frozen construction at established settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, as required by the road map. (© 2003 The Associated Press 07/26/03)
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