updated 12/25/2006 1:05:37 PM ET 2006-12-25T18:05:37

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday approved in principle the removal of some army roadblocks that have hindered Palestinian travel in the West Bank, one of several gestures aimed at boosting moderate President Mahmoud Abbas in his bitter struggle with the militant Islamic Hamas.

Olmert approved streamlining checkpoints and removing roadblocks “to strengthen moderate (Palestinian) elements,” according to a statement from Olmert’s office. Olmert has already pledged to pump $100 million in tax money into Abbas’ coffers and indicated he might release some Palestinian prisoners.

Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said inspections would be eased at 16 checkpoints, and 27 unmanned roadblocks would be removed. Also, crossings for people and cargo between Gaza and Israel would be upgraded “in order to accelerate the economy in Gaza to lessen the poverty and despair.”

Olmert singled out Abbas as a Palestinian leader who is interested in peace with Israel — a clear contrast to Hamas, which rejects the existence of a Jewish state in an Islamic Middle East and has rebuffed international demands to renounce violence. Hamas controls the Palestinian government.

Top militant seized
Also on Monday, Israel seized a top commander from a Palestinian militant group in the occupied West Bank.

Israeli forces raided the West Bank town of Qabatiya, near the city of Jenin, and detained nine Palestinians, including Yasser Nazzal, head of the Popular Resistance Committees in the West Bank, the security source and witnesses said.

They also seized two Islamic Jihad militants, they added.

The Israeli army confirmed they had arrested several suspected Palestinian militants, including Nazzal.

A first meeting
On Saturday, Olmert and Abbas had their first summit meeting in a year and a half. Abbas brought up the issues of prisoners and roadblocks—among the highest priorities for his people. Delivering on those two items would serve Olmert’s interests in boosting Abbas, but they would also cause him considerable political trouble at home.

For six months, Hamas-linked gunmen have been holding an Israeli soldier they captured in a cross-border raid. Up to now, Olmert has said he would not free any of the estimated 8,000 prisoners Israel is holding until the captured solider is freed. His apparent change of heart has drawn fire from the father of the soldier and hardline opponents in parliament, but more importantly, from members of his own Cabinet.

Removing roadblocks has also stirred opposition. Only a fraction of the more than 400 permanent barriers in the West Bank would be taken down, but the Israeli army commander in the West Bank, Brig. Gen. Yair Naveh, warned in a closed meeting that even that would aid Palestinian militants in attacking Israelis, according to security officials.

Rockets fired at Israel
Trouble was also brewing on the Gaza front, with militants firing rockets at Israel every day despite a cease-fire. Four rockets exploded harmlessly in Israel on Monday, and two mortar shells landed near an army base at the vital Karni cargo crossing between Israel and Gaza, the military said.

Israel on Monday instructed its U.N. ambassador to lodge a complaint with the Security Council over the rocket fire, a government statement said.

Hardline politicians have been clamoring for Israeli retaliation for the rocket launching, but so far Olmert has held firm in his decision not to respond to the provocations.

The statement from Olmert’s office said in the first stage, the checkpoints would be expanded and services extended to cut down on waiting time for Palestinians. Later, some roadblocks would be lifted.

“We must consider easing roadblocks in places where this does not pose a danger,” Defense Minister Amir Peretz told reporters.

Palestinians welcomed the decision. Although hundreds of roadblocks will remain, “we still consider this a step in lifting the internal closure in the West Bank,” said Saeb Erekat, a top Abbas aide.

Release of prisoners
Peretz also came out in favor of releasing some Palestinian prisoners.

Speaking to reporters at parliament, Peretz said, “Every year there has been a humanitarian release of prisoners” around the Christmas and (Muslim) Eid al-Adha holidays, and the government should carry out a similar goodwill gesture this year,” he said.

In another development, Jordan invited Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas for talks in Amman, the Jordanian capital, a Palestinian official said Monday.

Palestinian government spokesman Ghazi Hamad said Haniyeh was expected to go to Jordan this week, and Abbas would also attend.

There was no immediate comment from Jordan.

Talks between Haniyeh and Abbas of the moderate Fatah over a joint government have broken down, and there have been clashes between armed forces loyal to the rival movements. Jordan has offered to mediate in the past.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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