JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Middle East envoy Tony Blair has presented Israel with a list of West Bank travel and trade restrictions he wants removed to bolster peace talks with the Palestinians, officials briefed on the document said.
After Blair’s talks with Defence Minister Ehud Barak on Monday, Israel said it would take down one checkpoint between the city of Nablus and dozens of smaller towns and villages in the northern West Bank. Palestinian residents described the checkpoint as a major bottleneck for travellers and traders.
An Israeli army spokeswoman said the decision was made after a security assessment but added that the barrier could be replaced in the future if Israel determines that Palestinian militants are using the route.
A Blair spokesman welcomed Barak’s decision to remove the checkpoint east of Nablus but declined to comment on the list.
Blair’s list calls for the removal of a number of other roadblocks, including one near the Jewish settlement of Beit El that restricts Palestinian travel to and from the West Bank city of Ramallah, where President Mahmoud Abbas’s government is based, the officials said on condition of anonymity.
The list is the first of its kind by the former British prime minister since world powers appointed him last June to spearhead efforts to revive the Palestinian economy.
Citing Israel’s restrictions, the World Bank cautioned this week that per capita income in the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank in 2008 would be static, if not lower, despite $7.7 billion in aid pledged to the Palestinians in December.
Barak has long balked at removing major checkpoints and roadblocks, arguing that they are needed to stop militants.
Palestinians say Israel’s network of hundreds of checkpoints and roadblocks in the West Bank amount to collective punishment, stifle their economy and undermine support for Abbas.
The Palestinian leader launched final-status peace talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in November.
With U.S. President George W. Bush slated to return to Israel next month, Western pressure is mounting on Olmert to do more to ease travel restrictions and take other steps to shore up Abbas, whose authority has been limited to the West Bank since Hamas Islamists took over the Gaza Strip in June.
While maintaining restrictions in the West Bank, Israel has tightened its economic and military cordon of the Gaza Strip since Hamas’s takeover.
Details from Blair’s list have yet to be made public. But similar efforts by other Western envoys have failed in the past.
U.S. Gen. Keith Dayton, who serves as security coordinator between Israel and the Palestinians, presented his own roadblock removal plan a year ago that was ignored by Israel.
Following a recent visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Israel announced plans to remove 61 barriers in the West Bank. But a U.N. survey subsequently found that only 44 of the 61 obstacles had been scrapped and that most of them were of little or no significance.
The peace talks, launched at a U.S.-sponsored conference in Annapolis, Maryland in November with the goal of reaching a statehood deal before Bush leaves office next January, have shown little sign of progress.