Israel Holds Out The Olive Branch

In a gesture to Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, Israeli defense officials said Wednesday they had begun easing travel restrictions in the West Bank and were discussing the removal of unauthorized settlement outposts.

But Palestinians said little had changed on the ground and that Israel had even confiscated some Palestinian land in the West Bank.

Israel relaxed the restrictions on five of seven West Bank cities, allowing Palestinians to travel between their towns and villages, reports CBS News Correspondent Robert Berger. However, the army said the blockade would remain in force in the cities of Nablus and Jenin, because of the threat of suicide bombings.

The closure was imposed a month ago, after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 20 Israelis in the port city of Haifa.

In other developments, a meeting of Palestinian officials failed to resolve a stalemate between Qureia and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Their dispute, over the appointment of a security chief, has prevented Qureia from forming a new government and resuming dormant peace talks with Israel.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon returned home from Russia early Wednesday after expressing hope in a new Palestinian government.

Israeli forces have been encircling main Palestinian population centers for two months, banning most travel. The crackdown has further stifled the battered Palestinian economy and increased Palestinian anger.

Jenin and Nablus have been centers of Palestinian militant activity, and an army spokesman said the military had received numerous warnings about threats in Nablus. The army said operations in the area would continue Wednesday.

"Easing up on the Palestinians is all well and good, but it takes second place to the security of the people of Israel," Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Tuesday.

With a population of more than 130,000, Nablus is the largest city in the West Bank. The travel restrictions have disrupted the city's commerce and prevented people from nearby towns from reaching hospitals.

Early Wednesday, there were few signs of improvement in the West Bank.

"We don't know how long these measures will last and we don't know the extent of Israeli commitment to these measures," said Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian foreign minister.

At the Surda roadblock north of Ramallah, the army allowed pedestrians to pass but a physical barrier remained intact. The crossing was jammed with hundreds of cars, people and donkeys.

Other checkpoints were also still intact, and the operators of major bus companies in Nablus and Bethlehem said they still did not have permission to resume operations.

An army spokesman said the lifting of the restrictions was being carried out in steps. "I can assure you that people are feeling this (improvement) as we speak," the spokesman said.

Meanwhile, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Israeli army had approved the seizure of Palestinian farmland in the Jordan Valley, not far from the Israel-West Bank border. The army, he said, planned to use the land for a security barrier that Israel is building, ostensibly to deter suicide bombers. The army did not immediately comment.

Erekat said he complained to the United States, Russia and the European Union — sponsors of the international "road map" peace plan that envisions a Palestinian state by 2005.

Palestinians are enraged over the barrier, which dips deep into the West Bank in some areas. The United States has also criticized it.

"The Israeli government is determined to bury the road map and the vision of a two-state solution underneath this wall," Erekat said.

Israeli security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Defense Ministry would start a serious discussion about removing unauthorized settlement outposts in the West Bank. The easing of travel restrictions and the review of the outposts are meant to show Qureia that the country is serious about resuming peace talks, the officials added.

Mofaz also wants to show progress to U.S. officials when he goes to Washington next week, the officials said. The United States has greatly diminished its presence in the region in recent weeks amid continued violence.

The road map peace plan requires Israel to dismantle dozens of settlement outposts erected since 2001. The outposts are typically little more than a handful of trailers and Israeli flags.

However, only a few of the outposts been removed, and in recent weeks the Defense Ministry has given indications it would take steps to "legalize" some of the remaining ones instead, drawing stiff Palestinian objections.

In another development, the central committee of the dominant Palestinian Fatah party met to discuss the dispute between Qureia and Arafat. A grim-looking Qureia left the meeting without talking to reporters.

"The situation is too difficult and nothing has changed," Shaath said.

Qureia wants all security forces under one person, Gen. Nasser Yousef. Arafat, who controls some of the forces, has opposed the appointment on personal and political grounds.

Israeli and Palestinian officials had already started contacts in anticipation of Qureia's presenting a new Cabinet. The two sides hope to arrange a meeting between Qureia and Sharon once a Palestinian government has been formed. The leaders would talk about a possible truce and how to break the deadlock over the international peace plan.