Israel tightens controversial blockades


Palestinians accused Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s new government of turning their cities into prison camps on Sunday, but the Israeli army said it had only tightened its West Bank blockade to fight “terrorism.”

Troops have dug trenches and put up sandhills near the West Bank cities of Ramallah, Jenin and Jericho and placed tanks near Ramallah, sealing the Palestinian-ruled cities off from other parts of the West Bank, home to two million Palestinians.

Witnesses said additional roadblocks had been set up in the heart of Jerusalem, a prime target of Islamic militant suicide bombers who have vowed to launch a rash of attacks with Sharon’s rise to power.

The Palestinian leadership issued a statement calling for the U.N. Security Council to convene and for the international community to act “to bring an end to this new racist Israeli policy that can lead to a full explosion in the entire region”.

Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo accused the new government of officially launching “a new war against the Palestinian people.” He said it was turning cities “into prisons and detention camps”.

Witnesses said the army had sealed off Palestinian-ruled Ramallah, the medical, business, and cultural center of the West Bank after East Jerusalem, 12 kilometers (seven miles) away.

An army spokesman said the measures aimed “to impair free movement of terrorists”. Similar steps were taken elsewhere. “The issue is not one of collective punishment, rather preventative steps demanded by the situation,” he said.

At least 343 Palestinians, 65 Israelis, and 13 Israeli Arabs have been killed in more than five months of Palestinian-Israeli clashes that erupted following a breakdown in peace moves. Sharon rules out retaking lands

Sharon, a right-wing former general who took office last week, said in an interview published on Sunday that he would not respond to the Palestinian uprising by reoccupying West Bank and Gaza lands handed over in seven years of peace deals.

Israeli hardliners have urged retaking the lands.

“Areas that were given to the Palestinians — there, I think the situation is irreversible and I don’t think we have to re-enter,” Sharon said in a joint interview with the Washington Post and Newsweek.

“That doesn’t mean Israel will not take steps against people who find shelter there,” he added.

In the interview Sharon also said he preferred to deal with the Palestinians before negotiating with arch-foe Syria. But he said peace talks can only resume if an end is brought to the bloodiest Israeli-Palestinian violence in decades.

Shimon Peres, Sharon’s dovish foreign minister, said on Sunday it was still too early for him to meet Palestinian President Yasser Arafat despite what he called a slight drop in “terrorism”.

Asked if he would meet Arafat, his co-winner of the 1994 Nobel peace prize, Peres told Israel Radio: “I am not ready to declare any meeting. I believe it’s too early.” In a speech to Palestinian lawmakers on Saturday, Arafat lashed out at Israeli “aggression” and vowed to renew a request at the United Nations to deploy international forces in the occupied territories to protect his people.

Arafat also called on Israel’s new government to resume peace talks on the basis of understandings reached in negotiations with Sharon’s dovish predecessor, Ehud Barak.

“In his speech there was no clear appeal to stop terrorism. There were a few formulations that should have been more pleasant to the Israeli ear,” Peres complained.

Peres said Israel wanted a clear Palestinian policy to reduce violence.

“We don’t want to live with our Arab neighbors back to back and on every back a rifle. We want to live with them face to face,” Peres said.

In the interview, Sharon restated his belief in reaching another interim peace deal “or a situation of non-belligerency.” He said he wanted to arrange “contiguity” so that Palestinians would not have to cross Israeli checkpoints.