Israel OKs Palestinian Workers

More than 6,000 Palestinian laborers crossed into Israel from the Gaza Strip on Sunday as Israel slightly eased restrictions that had prevented them from reaching their workplaces for more than a month, Palestinian officials said.

The Palestinian workers crammed through the Erez crossing before dawn, submitting to tight security checks but thankful to return to their jobs. All the permits were given to men 35 and older, because Israel says married men over this age are less likely to carry out attacks.

Also Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon traveled to Moscow, where he is expected to talk with President Vladimir Putin about Israel's concerns over Iran's nuclear program and a Russian-backed U.N. resolution on a Mideast peace plan.

Iran has pledged to open its nuclear program to unfettered inspections and to suspend uranium enrichment. But Israeli officials fear Iran is continuing to covertly acquire nuclear arms know-how, at least some of it from countries of the former Soviet Union, possibly including Russia.

Israeli officials said they would also discuss Russia's introduction last week of a resolution asking the U.N. Security Council to endorse the "road map" Mideast peace plan, over opposition from the United States and Israel.

A senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press that Israel considered the United Nations a hostile forum and deepening its involvement would hinder, rather than help, peace efforts.

The slight easing of the restrictions on Palestinians came after Israel's army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, criticized the continuing closures and said they were stirring Palestinian hatred and increasing support for suicide bombings.

Strict closures were placed on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza before the Jewish New Year holiday in September because of increased concerns about attacks. The restrictions, which had been extended through a series of Jewish holidays — and the Oct. 4 suicide bombing of a Haifa restaurant that killed 21 — prevented nearly 3 million Palestinians from traveling to Israel and leaving their communities. Many Palestinian farmers could not reach their fields, badly damaging the annual olive harvest.

Israel's government says the restrictions are necessary to prevent Palestinian suicide bombers and other attackers from reaching Israeli targets.

Before fighting erupted three years ago, more than 50,000 Palestinians from Gaza and 100,000 from the West Bank worked in Israel. That number has been greatly restricted since then and commerce between Palestinian towns has also been curtailed. The restrictions have further damaged the already crippled Palestinian economy, pushing thousands of Palestinian families into poverty.

Israel began slightly easing restrictions on the Palestinians Thursday, an army spokesman said, when it allowed some 4,500 West Bank laborers and merchants to go to work in Israel. In addition, Israel allowed public transportation between West Bank towns and cities to resume, the spokesman said.

In Gaza on Sunday, about 10,000 permits were handed out. But only 6,200 people crossed the border because of permit problems and personal issues, according to Palestinian border officials. Most of those that crossed work in the nearby Erez industrial zone.

For most Palestinians who are celebrating the monthlong holiday of Ramadan, fasting from dawn to dusk and then holding lavish feasts, the timing could not have been better.

"It is a miracle from God because I was running out of money due to the holy month of Ramadan and I was thinking how I would manage to feed my children in this very bad economic situation," said Mohammed Salman, a 42-year-old construction worker who has seven children.

However, Salman was unhappy with the security checks, which make a trip from his home in the Jabalya refugee camp to Tel Aviv take several hours instead of less than an hour.

"This step is not enough because they are treating us like animals at the borders. They are humiliating us. We want real free movement and we want good living conditions and peace for all of us," Salman said.

Col. Salim Abu Safiya, director of the Palestinian Border Authority, said Israel had also promised to improve conditions at Gaza's Karni industrial crossing, which has been operating at partial capacity for weeks.

Israeli officials also said they would allow Gazans over the age of 50 to travel on Friday to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem in honor of Ramadan, Abu Safiya said. Final arrangements for this have not been made and it is unclear how many Gazans will attend the prayer services, he said.