Israel Lifts Four-Week Blockade of Bethlehem: Palestinian Security Cooperation, International Pressure Called Factors

Article excerpt

Israel yesterday eased its four-week blockade on the holy city of Bethlehem, with officials saying it was because of improved security cooperation by the Palestinians.

The State Department welcomed the move, which could ease the way for Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright to visit the Middle East next month.

State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said the Israeli move was "a welcome decision."

"We had been concerned about the closure. This is a step forward," he said.

"We would hope that a balance could be struck between Israeli security needs and the considerations of Palestinian daily life," Mr. Rubin said.

Speaking in South Korea yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel made the concession to improve the atmosphere for Mrs. Albright's trip. "This is designed to prepare the ground for the visit of Mrs. Albright," he said.

David Bar-Illan, a Netanyahu top policy adviser, said the 28-day closure was lifted for security reasons but gave no further details.

"Something has changed that made them feel it was safe now to lift the internal closure," he told the Associated Press.

But Mr. Bar-Illan also said Israel was "seeing very little by way of cooperation" from the Palestinians on security.

One Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the big change was improved security cooperation with Israel by the Palestinian Authority, led by Yasser Arafat.

The blockade was imposed after suicide bombers killed 14 Israelis in Jerusalem's crowded Mahane Yehuda market July 30.

"Arafat has undertaken some positive steps on the ground in the field of intelligence cooperation," the Israeli official said. "They were not sufficient to remove the threat, but Israel did not want to ignore them.

"So we did something partial in lifting the blockade as a sign that if they do more in the field of security cooperation, we will do more as well," the official said. …