Mideast Report

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JERUSALEM (JPS) — Plans to establish a new rail line from the port city of Ashdod to the Palestinian-ruled Gaza Strip were unveiled Tuesday by Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon.

Cargo and passenger trains would boost trade between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, and decrease international imports and exports from Gaza, Sharon said.

This will bring added security to both Israelis and Palestinians, Sharon added, since it indicates a willingness for joint venture economic activities.

Sharon has ordered Maj.-Gen. Oren Shahor, the government coordinator in the territories, to work with the Palestinian Authority to extend the rail route through the Gaza Strip.

Earlier this month, the Egyptian government announced a $400 million plan to build a railway from Ismailiya to Rafah at the Gaza border.

Palestinian body closes capital offices

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Palestinian Authority has closed several of its East Jerusalem offices. Israel has maintained that those offices violated the self-rule accords.

Palestinian officials said Sunday that these included the offices of geography and cartography and the offices of youth and sport. A statistics office was shut down by the authority last week.

Israel has been demanding the closures as a precondition to resuming talks on the redeployment of Israeli troops from most of the West Bank town of Hebron.

Israeli, Palestinian discuss economics

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israeli Finance Minister Dan Meridor met with his Palestinian counterpart this week to discuss easing economic fallout from Israel's closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Jerusalem talks marked the highest level meeting between a Palestinian Authority official and a member of Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud government since Foreign Minister David Levy met last month in Gaza with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Maher Al-Masri warned that if the closure continued, it could spark social problems that would cause a "derailing of the peace process."

Added Meridor: "There is a common interest to improve the economic situation in the territories…and we will work together to promote this interest."

The closure, in place for some six months, was imposed by the Labor government after the first in a series of suicide bombings in February and March in Israel.

The ban, continued by the current government with some easing, has kept tens of thousands of Palestinians from jobs in Israel, and Palestinian officials say unemployment in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has reached 51 percent.

Israel air force head unhurt in emergency

TEL AVIV (JPS) — A U.S. Navy F-14 returning Israeli Air Force Maj.-Gen. Eitan Ben-Eliyahu from a visit to the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier blew a tire on landing and smoldered on the runway at Ben-Gurion Airport Sunday.

Rescue vehicles cooled down the landing gear and Ben-Eliyahu and the U.S. Navy pilot emerged unharmed, Israeli army officials said.

Ben-Eliyahu had just returned from observing maneuvers aboard the U.S. aircraft carrier currently docked in Haifa.

The pride of the U.S. Sixth Fleet, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier is conducting a joint Israeli-U.S. military exercise in international waters.

"[The message] is pretty obvious. The United States and Israel are partners and we have a long and deep and full relationship and the security relationship is part of that," said Richard Scorza, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv.

Syria asks terrorist to leave for Iran

JERUSALEM (JPS) — Syrian President Hafez Assad has asked the head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, Ahmed Jibril, to leave Syria and go to Iran, knowledgeable sources say.

It remains unclear whether Assad asked Jibril last week to leave for good and close down his Syrian-based group that opposes peace with Israel, or that he leave the country temporarily.

There is speculation that Assad asked Jibril to leave Damascus because he feels the domestic climate in the United States is growing increasingly angry over terrorism in the wake of the bombing of U.S. soldiers in Dharan, Saudi Arabia, and the suspected bombing of TWA Flight 800 last month.

Syria remains on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist nations, but publicly disassociates itself from terrorism.

Jibril reportedly participated in a June meeting in Tehran along with members of Hezbollah and an Egyptian Islamic militant group. At the meeting he expressed an interest in carrying out attacks against American targets.