Israeli-Palestinian relations warming as sanctions ease up

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JERUSALEM — Israeli-Palestinian relations showed hints of a thaw this week amid some progress in security cooperation and a partial Israeli relaxation of economic sanctions on the self-rule areas.

On Tuesday, Israel released some $12 million, about one-third of the tax revenues it has withheld from the Palestinian Authority since July 30, when two suicide bombers killed 14 Israelis in Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market.

The move came after what Israel called the Palestinian Authority's "partial cooperation" into the investigation of last month's attack and its swift capture and conviction of three Palestinians who admitted to killing a Jerusalem taxi driver last weekend.

Palestinian Authority officials welcomed the move as a "positive step," but protested that the entire sum was not being handed over.

They claim that Israel owes the authority $70 million in tax revenues and that the failure to transfer the entire sum was preventing the authority from paying salaries to its employees.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's spokesman, Shai Bazak, said that although Israel was turning over some of the revenues, it still expected the Palestinian Authority to do more to crack down on terrorism.

Bazak added that the sanctions Israel imposed in the wake of the attack, including a full closure on the territories, would be eased relative to the authority's commitment to arrest terrorists.

Palestinian officials countered over the weekend that they were considering a Palestinian boycott of all Israeli goods imported into the territories.

Earlier Arafat said the Palestinian Authority would not accept "dictates" from Israel and would not carry out mass arrests of Islamic militants.

The Palestinian leader also called for "national unity" talks with militant groups in the self-rule areas to prepare a united front against Israel.

Despite the rhetoric, there was an indication that some security cooperation had been revived.

Indeed, the head of the Israeli army intelligence branch, Maj. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon, said Tuesday there has been some progress in security cooperation. But he also said Arafat is still not doing enough to crack down on terrorism and prevent violence.

During his latest shuttle mission to the region last week, U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross succeeded in convincing Israeli and Palestinian security officials to resume meetings aimed at re-establishing security cooperation as long as CIA officials were present.

Arafat cited the arrests of the three Palestinians as proof that the Palestinian Authority was working with Israeli security forces.

At a three-way meeting Sunday in the West Bank town of Ramallah, West Bank Security Chief Jibril Rajoub gave his Israeli counterparts some explosives the Palestinians found last month in a bomb factory in the town of Beit Sahur in the West Bank.

Israeli officials said they hoped the explosives would help with their investigation of the July 30 attack.

And, according to Israeli media reports, they already have. The Israeli daily Ha'aretz, citing Israeli security sources, said the explosives found beside a Hamas member killed while preparing a bomb in Beit Sahur several weeks ago were similar to those used in the suicide bombing in Jerusalem last month.

While the assailants have not yet been identified, security officials believe progress has been made in the investigation, the paper said.

It further quoted the security sources as saying that the bombers appeared to have been members of a terrorist cell in the West Bank and trained by a Hamas member. Investigators believe the bombers may have come from abroad, but were trained and received logistical support in the West Bank.

Meanwhile, the head of Israel's Shin Bet domestic security service met with Arafat in Gaza Monday night to discuss continued security cooperation.

Ami Ayalon also thanked Arafat for apprehending the three Palestinians who confessed to murdering the Israeli taxi driver, Shmuel Ben Baruch.

Earlier in the week, Ayalon was in London to probe claims that the attack had been carried out by Arab militants based in Britain, according to news reports.

Israeli officials would not comment on the published claims.

While Israeli officials praised the Palestinian cooperation that led to the swift capture of the taxi driver's murderers, Netanyahu spokesman David Bar-Illan said the arrests were "not the same as destroying the infrastructure of the terrorist organizations" in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

A Palestinian military court sentenced the three on Saturday, hours after the taxi driver's bloodied body was found in an irrigation well in Jericho.

Two of the men, ages 19 and 20, received life in prison with hard labor for premeditated murder. The third, 17, received 15 years in prison for complicity in the crime.

The three said they had only intended to steal the car, but they killed Ben Baruch when he tried to run away.

Ben Baruch, who was married with four children, had been sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, according to his wife, Betty.