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Israel Talks Tough But Appeases Arabs On Closed Border

WHILE keeping up a barrage of tough rhetoric aimed at voters in the May 29 Israeli elections, Prime Minister Shimon Peres is also easing the four-week-old closure of Gaza and the West Bank in the face of international pressure to avoid a humanitarian disaster.

"Things are starting to move, but we still have a long way to go," says Rick Hooper, chief of staff for United Nations special coordinator Terje Larsen, who last week appealed for a $100 million aid package to create emergency jobs for Palestinians and prevent "massive political unrest."

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"After a week of intensive contacts, more food and materials are coming in, and exports like textiles and agricultural products are starting to move out, but the quantity of exports is marginal so far," Mr. Hooper says.

He adds the first employment-creation project would go into operation today, funded by Norway and carried out by the UN. It would employ 2,500 Palestinians. Five other countries have made contributions and other projects would begin next week, he says. The plan is to employ some 20,000 Palestinians in the new projects.

Mr. Peres has vowed to maintain the closure, which affects some 70,000 Palestinians who must cross the border each day to work in Israel, as long as there is a threat of further suicide bombings.

But Peres also has backed the UN appeal. He told a delegation of Israeli Arabs here Tuesday that he is doing everything possible to relieve the impact of the closure. "The prime minister is using bilateral channels with various countries to urge them to contribute to the appeal," Israeli government spokesman Uri Dromi says. "Israeli officials are doing what they can, but it is easier said than done."

The strictest-ever closure of the Palestinian territories, following a spate of suicide bombings by Islamic extremists that claimed 62 lives, has created an economic and humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Many Western diplomats assume that the blockade against Palestinian workers crossing into Israel will be maintained until after the May 29 elections, in which Peres faces a strong challenge from the right-wing Likud Party led by Binyamin Netanyahu.

Israel also has delayed withdrawal of Israeli forces from the strife-torn West Bank town of Hebron, which was due to have taken place yesterday in accordance with the agreed timetable of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.

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Yesterday, Israeli security forces arrested 376 suspected Islamic militants in villages near the Palestinian-controlled town of Ramallah on the West Bank, the largest security sweep since the recent suicide bombings.

Peres, who often has to rely on a handful of Arab legislators in the Knesset (parliament) to push through decisions on the peace process, is eager to not alienate Arab leaders, who are trying to form a united front to boost their number of seats in the upcoming elections.

"Mr. Peres told us that he had personally called the Norwegian prime minister to appeal for funds for easing the closure," says Ibrahim Sarsur, the mayor of the Israeli Arab village of Kafr Kassem.

Peres also told the leaders that he had given instructions to allow the Nazareth office of the Islamic Relief Committee, whose doors were welded shut by security forces last week, to resume its humanitarian activities. Israel maintains that aid from the relief committee was reaching Islamic extremists responsible for the suicide bombings.

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