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Israel Seals Off Gaza Following Talks With Powell

BY Admin  May 12, 2003 at 2:00 PM EST

The move, one of the strictest in years, came a day after Secretary of State Colin Powell left Jerusalem, where Israeli officials promised to begin making concessions in an effort to move forward with the U.S.-backed “road map” to political peace.

On Sunday, Israel did take several steps, releasing 61 Palestinian prisoners and allowing 25,000 Palestinian workers to return to their jobs in Israel. Palestinian workers have been banned from Israel for security reasons since September of 2000 when the latest round of violence flared in the region.

But the next day violence again flared when Israeli soldiers shot and killed two Palestinian gunmen and a farm worker. The government told the Associated Press that soldiers believed the gunmen were attempting to plant bombs near a checkpoint.

Israeli forces then imposed the travel restrictions, reversing concessions made Sunday and causing concern among international relief agencies.

In an interview with the Associated Press, United Nations Relief and Works Agency Spokesman Paul McCann said his agency’s work has been limited considerably by the Israeli-imposed restrictions.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” McCann said.

The U.N. agency gives aid to thousands of Palestinian refugees.

It was unclear Monday how long restrictions in the Gaza would remain in effect.

Despite the crackdown Monday, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told Israeli Radio that his government was very serious in its intentions to advance toward peace.

“But,” he added, “we have always said that any gestures to ease the lives of Palestinians will be carried out only if they don’t harm the security of our citizens.”

Powell flew to Cairo Monday to garner Arab support for the U.S. peace plan after inconclusive meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Sharon has expressed reservations about the “road map,” and is expected in Washington next week to iron out his concerns with President George W. Bush.

Some Palestinians officials have expressed disappointment with the Powell meetings, saying the secretary of state failed to get Sharon’s endorsement of the plan.

Sharon is also expected to meet with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas this week. The meeting would mark the highest-level talks between the two sides in nearly three years.

The U.S. announced its “road map” to peace on April 30. Powell’s meeting with Israeli and Palestinian officials this weekend was the first step in the process, which U.S. officials hope will conclude with a cease-fire and a Palestinian state as early as 2005.