The plea assumes signficance against the backdrop of the recent re-imposition of harsh restrictions on Palestinians' movement throughout the occupied territory.
 
The Israeli army last week installed a major checkpoint at the Zaatra Junction, south of Nablus, which Palestinians say effectively cut off the northern parts of the West Bank from the rest of the occupied region.
 
The Israeli army said the new checkpoint, which has an infrastructure befitting a border crossing, was part of a "central command plan for reshaping the area".

Nablus Governor Mahmoud al-Alul lamented the closure of his town. "This border crossing-like checkpoint is cutting off Nablus and Jenin from the rest of the West Bank. Israel is really creating an isolated Bantustan here."

Rafah deal approved

Agencies report quoting Israel public radio that Israel's security cabinet has approved an agreement with Cairo to reopen the Rafah border terminal between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.

The okay for Rafah to function under Egyptian and Palestinian control, with European observers and Israeli camera surveillance, came on Tuesday even as Palestinian ministers denied any final deal had been reached.

Israel wants only Palestinians
and VIPs to use Rafah crossing

In its decision, the Israel security cabinet also stressed the importance of having European representatives stationed at the crossing with sufficient authority.

Israel's Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who said the Rafah question must be solved urgently otherwise Israel's withdrawal from Gaza would "not be complete", will head up the team negotiating with the Europeans.

Israel wants only VIPs and Palestinian citizens to use the
crossing, with foreign nationals forced to pass through Israel, via a separate terminal at Kerem Shalom, a senior official told AFP.

Big picture

This week the Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted an unnamed "diplomatic source" as saying that the new checkpoints were part of a big picture of creating three enclaves in the West Bank.

If true, any prospective Palestinian entity on the West Bank would be made up of disconnected enclaves or Bantustans, surrounded by Israeli settlements.

Israeli continues to keep Gaza in
its crosshairs despite the pullout

PA officials contacted by Aljazeera.net accused Israel of seeking to kill the US-backed road map peace plan.
 
"This mutilation of the West Bank is a deliberate, political and strategic Israeli measure aimed at annihilating Palestinian dreams for a viable Palestinian state for fifty years to come," said Abdullah Abdullah, the second man in the Palestinian Foreign Ministry.
 
Speaking to Aljazeera.net on Tuesday, Abdullah also accused the Israeli government of Ariel Sharon of seeking to "gradually delegitimise and undercut" Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
 
"The only thing preventing them from dealing with (PA President Mahmoud) Abbas the way they dealt with Arafat is the American and international position. Otherwise, they are waiting for the opportune time to delegitimise him."

Security pretext

Abdullah scoffed at Israeli assertions that the reintroduction of ubiquitous roadblocks and checkpoints was a valid security measure aimed at preventing Palestinian "terror" against Israeli targets.

Last week, the international Quartet's representative in the occupied territories, James Wilfensohn, accused Israel of paralysing the Palestinian economy by imposing severe restrictions on movement of goods and people, both in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"The only thing preventing them from dealing with (PA President Mahmoud) Abbas the way they dealt with Arafat is the American and international position"

Abdullah Abdullah,
PA Foreign Ministry official

Israel has so far refused to allow Palestinians to freely operate the Rafah border crossing by insisting on retaining a security presence at the entry point.

Such a presence would allow Israel to arrest individuals at will.
 
The PA, however, has opposed Israeli security presence at the crossing, and accused Israel of wanting to maintain the occupation of Gaza through the "back door".
 
For its part, Israel denies any intention to divide the West Bank into three Bantustans cut off from each other.

Mark Regev, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, told Aljazeera.net that Israeli measures, including the installment of roadblocks, were motivated by security, not political considerations.
 
"This is purely a defensive action. We tried repeatedly to ease up these restrictions on the Palestinians, but Palestinian 'terrorists' would always attack us, forcing us to re-impose these measures."

Roadblocks

Regev did not explain why many of these roadblocks were being erected on roads used exclusively by Palestinians, prominent among them being the road linking Nablus and the neighbouring town of Qalqilya.

Regev reiterated that Israel continued to view Abbas as a peace partner.

Israel says Abbas does not try
hard to eradicate terror

"He is one of the few elected leaders in the Middle East. The problem, however, is that he doesn't try hard to eradicate terror," he said.
 
However, Regev wouldn't say how Abbas' inherently weak government could be expected to fight Palestinian armed factions when his small police force, worn down by numerous Israeli assaults during the past five years, was not in control of major Palestinian towns in the West Bank.
 
The Israeli army continues to be in control of these towns, such as Hebron, Nablus, Jenin and Ram Allah.