Israel arrested dozens of Palestinians Sunday in an extensive crackdown on Islamic militants while easing travel restrictions on Palestinians working in Israel.
Military censors withheld the names, villages and the exact number of Palestinians arrested.
However, Israel television Channel 1 reported that about 40 suspected militants were taken into custody during the sweep, which it said took place north of the West Bank city of Nablus.
An army statement said only that the operation took place in the northern West Bank and elite paratrooper and undercover units participated in it.
The arrests come in the wake of two suicide bombings in Jerusalem that killed 25 people, including the five attackers. The Islamic militant Hamas group claimed responsibility for the July 30 and Sept. 4 bombings.
The Israeli government on Sunday also loosened a ban that had prevented Palestinians from traveling to Israel. The ban, imposed after the Sept. 4 bombing, had cost the struggling Palestinian economy millions of dollars each day, the World Bank said.
Israel announced that 4,000 construction workers would receive permits to go back to their jobs. Last week, some 10,000 Palestinians were allowed entry.
“We will check the security situation daily and continue the (easing) process if the security situation allows,” said Shlomo Dror, a spokesman for Israel’s military government in the West Bank.
The Israeli government’s actions on Sunday came several hours before Cabinet Secretary Dan Naveh left for Washington for meetings with U.S. officials.
Naveh, one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s closest advisers, said his trip was intended to pave the way for meetings set for later this week between Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy and top Palestinian official Mahmoud Abbas.
“In the first stage we will look at what the Palestinian Authority has done as a preliminary step against terrorism, and we hope that the picture we find will allow negotiations and the working groups to resume,” Naveh said.
Israel has demanded that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat crack down on Islamic militants blamed for the suicide bombings in Jerusalem. It holds Arafat responsible for the attacks because he failed to destroy the militants’ infrastructure.
Naveh said the Cabinet has decided that Israel will not hand over more territory to the Palestinian Authority until Arafat takes serious measures to rein in the militants.
Also Sunday, scuffles broke out in the Arab neighborhood of Ras alAmud in east Jerusalem where Jewish settlers moved into two buildings last week.
Several dozen Palestinians tried to force their way into the homes only to be pushed back by police.
The move by 11 Jewish settlers into Ras al-Amud has further complicated efforts to resume Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. In a compromise with Netanyahu’s government, the settlers moved out Thursday, but 10 religious students moved in.
Arafat on Sunday called the takeover “a clear violation” of the peace agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.
Palestinians want east Jerusalem to be their future capital, and believe even a small Jewish presence in Palestinian neighborhoods like Ras al-Amud jeopardizes those hopes.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak suggested that the moving of Jewish settlers into Arab east Jerusalem was like Iraq’s 1990 takeover of Kuwait.
With Israeli-Palestinian relations deteriorating, opposition leader Ehud Barak met Sunday with a government minister to explore the possibility of a national unity government, comprising both of Israel’s main parties: Netanyahu’s Likud and the opposition Labor Party.
However Barak, the Labor Party leader, said he would consider a political union only if Netanyahu changed his government’s policies toward the Palestinians.
David Bar-Illan, a top aide to Netanyahu, said the prime minister and Barak meet from time to time, but that no meeting was planned to discuss formation of a national unity government.
From Austria, where he is on a two-day official visit, Netanyahu said his government would be ready to start immediate talks on the definitive status of Palestinian areas only when Arafat lives up to promises made in earlier peace accords.