The Israeli army began easing a choking blockade on the Gaza Strip Thursday in line with a US-brokered ceasefire, although the Palestinians accused Israel of tightening the eight-month-old siege elsewhere.
But traffic was flowing more freely at this frequent flashpoint in the nearly nine months of Israeli-Palestinian violence than it has in weeks.
Palestinians wanting to travel the main road linking the north and south of the Strip and having to pass through here are used to waiting as long as four hours to get through a double checkpoint.
But on Thursday, a flatbed truck equipped with a crane was loading the cement blocks that soldiers had placed on the side of the road after dismantling the barriers.
Overseeing the operation, General Doron Almog said: "We are removing the cement blocks to improve the traffic."
Almog, army commander in the southern region, which includes the Gaza Strip, added that this is the "first step toward trying to give a chance to the political process."
But the Palestinians are not altogether satisfied.
"Instead of beginning to lift the siege and closures of Palestinian cities and towns and implement other measures required by the work plan, Israel has taken a number of actions to further the suffering of the Palestinian people," a Palestinian Authority statement said.
Palestinians reported some lifting of the closure in the Gaza Strip, including the opening of the border with Egypt, but in the West Bank they reported little change.
The Palestinian chief liaison officer for the southern Gaza Strip, Khaled Abul Ula, said Israel had agreed to remove more road checkpoints during the next 48 hours and open the Karni commercial border crossing with Israel.
Economic sanctions against the Palestinians have thrown thousands out of work. Nearly one-third of the population of the territories, some one million people, live below the poverty level, on less than two dollars per day.
Abul Ula said Israel had also promised at a security meeting Thursday in the Gaza Strip to allow Palestinian fishermen to take their boats out along the Mediterranean coast.
"We demanded that the Israeli side lift all the measures, and we're waiting for that to be implemented. They told us they would take concrete measures on the ground," he said.
Witnesses said the concrete blocks had started being lifted at other checkpoints, while traffic was also moving more easily at another junction on the Gaza Strip's main highway with the departure of two tanks.
But two jeeps were still in place, briefly holding up Palestinian traffic when settler and army vehicles traffic passed through the crossroads to the Netzarim Jewish settlement.
The Palestinian Authority said Israel had tightened the closure on towns such as Bethlehem, Hebron, Nablus in the West Bank, destroying roads and setting up new checkpoints.
It also said the army had "reoccupied land" at Dura in the West Bank, southwest of Hebron, using military jeeps, a bulldozer and a tank.
"In addition, the Israeli occupation forces closed down a vital road that connects Dura with the surrounding villages to the south, in effect cutting off tens of villages," the statement said.
At the headquarters of the Palestinian Red Crescent in Gaza City, ambulance services director Saib Sbirh had his own take on the story.
"Before, ambulances carrying an injured person were blocked for two hours. Today, they are moving through in 10 to 15 minutes. But no ambulance anywhere in the world should be stopped, not even for a minute."
Taxi driver Ahem Abudai also said nothing had changed. "Their bunkers are still there, and so are their steel road bumps that have wrecked my suspension." -- KFAR DAROM CROSSROADS, Gaza Strip, June 14 (AFP) -
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)