NABLUS, West Bank (AP) – Palestinians packed into cars to leave the West Bank city of Nablus on Saturday after Israel eased restrictions on residents leaving the town in vehicles for the first time in six years.
The easing on travel restrictions appears to be a result of increased coordination between Israel and Palestinian Authority security forces, which rule the West Bank.
Luay Saadi, head of Palestinian-Israeli security coordination in Nablus, said Saturday that he was told by his Israeli counterparts that Palestinian men and women over age 50 can now leave the town in their cars, without prior permission from Israel’s army.
An Israeli army spokeswoman could not confirm the new policy.
Most Nablus residents cross an Israeli checkpoint on foot to leave town, or obtain a permit from Israel’s military to exit in a vehicle.
But in an unusual turn of events on Saturday, Israeli soldiers allowed all Palestinians in vehicles, not just those driven by people over 50, to leave the city, prompting a rush of residents to enjoy the sudden easing up of restrictions.
Palestinian taxi drivers working around the large Israeli checkpoint of Huwara on Nablus’ southern outskirts said they were told by Israeli soldiers that allowing all drivers to leave the town was a goodwill gesture for an upcoming Muslim holiday, meant to begin on Monday.
Saadi said he understood Israel’s decision to allow people over 50 to leave Nablus in vehicles without permission was permanent. “Today I’m going in and out without a permit,” said taxi driver Khaled al-Nadi.
Since 2002, Nablus residents have required a permit from Israel’s army to leave their town in a vehicle. This is the first time those restrictions have been eased.
The quiet easing up on travel restrictions appears to a tangible result of increased coordination between Israel and Palestinian Authority security forces.
Last year they began cracking down on Palestinian militants operating from the once lawless city. “This shows the success of the Palestinian security forces,” said Nablus governor Jamal Moheisen.
Checkpoints are one of the main grievances Palestinians cite of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. They hinder movement and have choked off trade.
Israel maintains a system of roadblocks throughout the West Bank to prevent Palestinian militants from carrying out attacks. Scores of suicide bombers and gunmen were dispatched from Nablus to attack Israelis at the height of fighting between Palestinians and Israel.
The town of 170,000 is ringed by eight checkpoints and road barriers to control movement.
An Israeli army spokeswoman said she was not aware of the new policy but said they were building extra lanes at the large Huwara checkpoint outside of Nablus to speed up movement.
Upon hearing Israel was allowing Palestinians to leave in their vehicles without a permit, Wissam Hassouna, 37, gathered his wife and children into their car and headed for the Huwara checkpoint.
The supermarket attendant said he had not left Nablus in three years, because of tight movement restrictions.
“I hope this is permanent,” Hassouna said of the policy. “I really want to drive quickly in my car. I’ve never taken my car outside of Nablus before. I want to know what it feels like to speed,” he said from his car in line at the Huwara checkpoint.
In the Gaza Strip on Saturday, Palestinian activist Amjad Shawa said an expected boat carrying a Qatari delegation was delayed for technical reasons. Shawa did not specify those reasons.
The boat was to be manned by pro-Palestinian activists. It was to ship the Qataris to Gaza on Sunday to defy Israel and Egypt’s blockade of the coastal territory. The blockade was imposed after the militant group Hamas seized power of Gaza in July last year.
Activists have made three blockade-busting boat rides to Gaza, but this would have been the first carrying an Arab delegation.