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Israel eases blockades in West Bank

JERUSALEM — Israel bowed to international criticism on Tuesday by easing a blockade of cities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that is choking the Palestinian economy.

But in Ramallah, one of the sealed-off West Bank cities, Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said the change was cosmetic and aimed "at deceiving the world that the closure has been lifted."

Under criticism from Washington and the European Union, the Israeli army reopened two roads to Ramallah on Tuesday despite saying it had information militants in the city were planning a bomb attack in nearby Jerusalem.

Earlier on Tuesday, the army began lifting blockades on four West Bank towns following Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's announcement he wanted to avoid collectively punishing Palestinians whenever possible.

Peres said Israel must find a way to "distinguish between the people involved in terror and people who are trying to live their daily life."

"When we go after the terrorists we must make sure we don't hurt people who are innocent," he told Army Radio.

Washington warned Israel on Monday that if the economic pressure of the blockades brought about a collapse of the Palestinian Authority, then it would not augur well for peace.

Sharon's aide Raanan Gissin brushed off the U.S. criticism, telling Reuters: "At the same time President Bush insisted last night the Palestinians must stop the hostilities and violence before there can be any meaningful negotiations." Israel has dug trenches and deployed tanks near Palestinian-ruled areas, preventing Palestinians from travelling between towns and restricting the movement of goods.

Soldiers unravelled barbed wire around part of a Palestinian produce market which is next to a Jewish settlement in the divided West Bank city of Hebron. Israel Radio said the army was trying to fence off militant Jewish settlers from Palestinians.

In fresh violence, Israeli soldiers shot from machineguns mounted on tanks in a gun battle with Palestinian gunmen at Rafah near the Egyptian-Gaza border, witnesses said.

Arafat's Fatah faction called on Palestinians "to break the siege using all means" in a leaflet vowing the uprising would continue.

Mustafa Barghouthi, the head of a Palestinian humanitarian organisation, accused Israel of trying to destroy any prospects of peace by strangling the Palestinian economy.

Israeli Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer ordered the lifting of blockades around the West Bank cities of Tulkarm, Qalqilya, Bethlehem and Hebron on Monday following accusations that Israel was turning Palestinian areas into prisons.

But Palestinian witnesses said the blockades were only slightly eased in some places and not at all in others.

At least 344 Palestinians and 13 Israeli Arabs have been killed during a five-month-old Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation. Some 65 Israelis have been killed, at least six in bomb attacks.

An Israeli commander in the Ramallah area, Colonel Ilan Paz, announced the arrest of Palestinian militants who had killed eight Israelis and were planning a massive attack. He said the danger remained because the leaders had not been caught.

After meeting Arafat in Gaza on Monday, Patten said Israel was radicalising Palestinians with its closure policy.

Israel has clamped down on the uprising which erupted in late September following the breakdown of peace talks.

Palestinians asked the United Nations Security Council on Monday to condemn Israel for the blockade and deploy an international protection force in the West Bank and Gaza. The U.S. State Department rebuffed that request.