Palestinians: Israel not easing grip on eve of vote
Palestinians accused Israel on Saturday of not carrying out a promised easing of its military grip on the West Bank and Gaza for a presidential election to pick Yasser Arafat's successor.
Israel denied the allegations, saying it had relaxed restrictions on movement in the occupied territories.
On the eve of the vote, Palestinian officials announced a parliamentary election would be held on July 17 to complete what they hope will be a smooth transition toward democratic reform and peacemaking with Israel after Arafat's death in November.
As international election experts fanned out to monitor the ballot, Israeli soldiers continued to inspect the identity cards and packages of Palestinians waiting in line at checkpoints at the entrances to West Bank cities, witnesses said.
"The Palestinians and their cars are being checked at the roadblocks. This is not what we call easing of restrictions," Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said ahead of Sunday's vote, which Mahmoud Abbas, an advocate of non-violence in a struggle for statehood, was expected to win by a landslide.
Hanna Nasir, chairman of the Palestinian Central Election Commission, said international monitors were urged to ensure Israel relaxed military restrictions in occupied territories.
Israeli security sources rejected Erekat's accusations, saying many temporary checkpoints and barricades had been removed and procedures at larger permanent checkpoints outside cities and at major road junctions significantly eased.
"Major checkpoints are still in place, but there was never an intent to remove them. It's obvious they must stay in place for security reasons. Terrorist threats still have to be dealt with," said an army spokesman.
To Palestinians, the checkpoints are detested symbols of occupation. Israel says they stop suicide bombers.
CURFEW HOLDS UP BALLOT DELIVERY
Israeli officials acknowledged only one obstruction -- around several villages outside Nablus where troops imposed a curfew in a hunt for militants who killed an off-duty soldier and wounded three in the northern West Bank on Friday.
The curfews initially prevented deliveries of ballot papers there, but the restrictions were later lifted and monitors said all election materials were distributed.
Israeli officials said the army was also adhering to a commitment to keep troops out of West Bank cities -- where they often mount raids in search of militants -- to help Palestinians hold their first presidential election since 1996.
"We have not received reports from observers in the field about problems at checkpoints. That does not mean there are no problems," said a spokeswoman for European Union monitors. "I can't tell you (yet) that there have been no problems."
Earlier, the Nablus-area attack drew an Israeli threat to rescind its pledge of no military operations.
"We (promised) to ease off for 72 hours under agreement with the Palestinians, so that their security forces would take over responsibilities for the relevant areas," a senior Israeli security source said. "If they fail to make good on that, we will have no choice but to act."
Political sources said former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, one of the election monitors, was asked by an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to deliver the warning to Abbas.
Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed group in Abbas's dominant Fatah faction, claimed responsibility for the West Bank ambush.
Veteran Israeli peacemaker Shimon Peres, who is taking his Labour Party into a new coalition government with Sharon to pursue a planned withdrawal from the small occupied territory of Gaza, said Israel would do its utmost to facilitate the ballot.
"It is in our interest as well as the Palestinians'."
The passing of Arafat has raised hopes of ending four years of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed and reviving peace negotiations aimed at a Palestinian state. The United States and Israel accused of fomenting violence, something he always denied.
But militants have spurned Abbas's calls for a truce, suggesting he will have an uphill battle to realize his agenda.