Israeli army eases grip on ancient Jericho

JERICHO, West Bank Wed Jun 17, 2009 2:24pm EDT

An Israeli army soldier checks a Palestinian car at a checkpoint outside the West Bank town of Jericho March 31, 2008. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

An Israeli army soldier checks a Palestinian car at a checkpoint outside the West Bank town of Jericho March 31, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Ammar Awad

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JERICHO, West Bank (Reuters) - The Israeli army has removed a major checkpoint on the road into the West Bank town of Jericho, easing its grip on one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Jordan River valley.

The army Wednesday called it a "goodwill" gesture to give greater freedom of movement in the West Bank for Palestinians, who are hindered by hundreds of Israeli roadblocks and detours.

There have been similar moves lately, as new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responds to calls from U.S. President Barack Obama that Israel ease the burden of occupation and stop Jewish settlement in the West Bank to promote new peace negotiations.

"This is good news for the tourist business," said Yousef Salman, resort manager of the Jericho Intercontinental Hotel, a few hundred meters (yards) from the former checkpoint.

"It means no more long queues and long waits."

Jericho, a 10-minute drive from the Dead Sea at the lowest point on earth, is one of the world's oldest communities, site of the biblical Mount of Temptation where Christians believe Jesus was tempted by the devil after fasting for 40 days.

Palestinians in the tourist trade said the army checkpoint, which could delay traffic for an hour at busy periods, was taken away a few days ago. An Israeli army post remains at the site, capable of restoring the barrier if ordered.

A busload of American pilgrims was one of the first to enter Jericho earlier this week without going through the process of identity checks by armed soldiers, which some find unpleasant.

"ONGOING SECURITY ASSESSMENTS"

"The removal of this crossing is a result of security assessments in the Central Command, and a Civil Administration proposal as a part of the goodwill measures authorized by the Minister of Defense," the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said.

It added it had removed more than 140 roadblocks in the past year. It did not mention how many new obstacles were erected. A U.N. agency which tracks the roadblock issue said last month it counted 634 obstacles in April, 27 more than 12 months earlier.

The United Nations, World Bank and Israel's Western allies say they are a serious impediment to economic life as well as a daily humiliation. Israel says they are necessary for security.

Until the Palestinian uprising triggered an Israeli security crackdown in 2000, Jericho's casino -- a half hour drive downhill from Jerusalem -- raked in handsome profits from Israelis who have no licensed gambling in their own country.

Israel now bars its citizens from entering those parts of the West Bank -- mostly towns like Jericho -- which are under the immediate control of the autonomous Palestinian Authority.

Asked if the casino, which is part of the Intercontinental Hotel complex, was ready to re-open in anticipation of the return of Israeli gamblers, Salman said there was no plan to do so yet because there was no word of a change of conditions.

Palestinian security men manning their own checkpoint at the entrance to the town said they were still under orders to turn back Israeli citizens, as Israel currently requires.

Another Israeli checkpoint nearby has been moved, letting Palestinians drive from Jericho to the West Bank administrative center Ramallah without showing their papers to Israeli troops.

(Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Jon Hemming)

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