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Israel Relaxes its Checkpoints, Withdraws Troops from Hebron

By Lee Hockstader

By relaxing a handful of its military blockades in the territory it occupies today, Israel hoped to ease daily life for Palestinians somewhat, signal its flexibility to the Bush administration and, perhaps, prompt Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to push harder to restrain the year-old fighting here.

For the same reasons, Israel also withdrew its troops before dawn Monday from two hillside neighborhoods in the West Bank city of Hebron that it captured 10 days ago.

``We are not fighting the Palestinians, but rather terror and those who carry it out,'' said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who ordered the easing of the checkpoints as well as the troop withdrawal.

Palestinians said the effects of the easing of checkpoints and troop withdrawal were felt mainly at the margins. Jibril Rajoub, Arafat's West Bank security chief, said the Palestinians were demanding the complete lifting of the military blockade, which would allow Palestinians to return to Israel, where tens of thousands held had jobs before the violence broke out a year ago.

Sharon's moves triggered a political uproar among Israeli hard-liners, and prompted the first fracture of his broad unity government of right-wingers and moderates.

The leaders of a virulently anti-Arab bloc of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, announced they were quitting Sharon's coalition, taking five other lawmaker with them.

Although Sharon would still command a 76-member majority in the 120-member Knesset, the defections were the first from Sharon's 7-month-old government, and he was clearly stung.

``You have caused me great anguish today,'' said the prime minister, addressing the defectors in a speech to the full parliament at the opening of its winter session Monday. ``National unity is vital for Israel's durability. By contrast, you have given Arafat great pleasure today. For him this is a dream.''

The leaders of the hard-line bloc, Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi and Infrastructure Minister Avigdor Leiberman, have been consistent advocates for severe military action against Arafat and his 7-year-old Palestinian Authority. Zeevi has also called for transferring Palestinians out of the West Bank, where many have lived for hundreds of years, to Arab countries.

Jewish settlers in Hebron, who represent the extremist fringe of Israel's settlement movement, were seething at Sharon's decision. To put the security of Hebron's Jews into the hands of Palestinian security forces ``is irresponsibility and it's a crime,'' said Noam Arnon, a spokesman for the Jewish settlers in Hebron.

Incensed at news of the withdrawal, the settlers stormed into one of the neighborhoods late Sunday before the troops withdrew. Israeli police were summoned, and 21 of the settlers were arrested. All were released Monday.