Sharon Tightens Blockade On PA 'Flashpoint' Town

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israel's newly-established coalition government faced its first serious difficulty Monday, with differences emerging over how to cope with Palestinian terrorism.

Several Labor ministers rejected Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to have the army blockade the Palestinian Authority-ruled town of Ramallah, a flashpoint for violence and terror in recent months.

Clashes erupted Monday between Israeli troops and Palestinians protesting the blockade. At least one Palestinian reportedly was shot dead, after thousands of Palestinians marched in protest toward army barricades and brought tractors to try to remove the obstacles.

The army said in a statement roadblocks had been erected around the town because a high number of terror attacks had originated from Ramallah, with the Palestinian security forces doing nothing to stop them.

Labor's senior representative in government, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, said he believed that the policy of closing off the Palestinian areas - which prevents approximately 100,000 Palestinians from reaching jobs within Israel - needed to be "reassessed."

Transport Minister Ephraim Sneh, also a member of Peres' Labor party, said in a radio interview the government needed to make a decision on the value of the blockades.

He said closing off the PA-controlled areas did not make it more difficult for Palestinian terrorists to carry out their assaults. On the other hand, it "increases the bitterness in the entire population [and] gives them the feeling they have nothing to lose.

As a result, more people could join the cycle of violence, added Sneh, who served as deputy defense minister in the previous government.

Sharon's office said on Monday Israel had received "specific information" that a terrorist attack was being planned from Ramallah.

"Sharon's policy is to ease sanctions everywhere but to act against localities in which terrorist activity is to be perpetrated," a statement from his office said. "This is part of his policy of foiling attacks and combating both the attackers and those who dispatch them."

Israel has come under international condemnation for its policy of closure, which has brought the PA areas to the verge of financial ruin. The closures have also sparked an ongoing debate inside Israel.

While the blockades may contribute to keeping terrorists out, they also spread discontent among Palestinians unable to earn a living and to feed their families, which in turn could result in further violence.

Speaking in several interviews with U.S. media over the weekend, Sharon said he would like to negotiate with the Palestinians but not "under terror or violence."

He added that he believed that PA Chairman Yasser Arafat was still in control of the territories and could put an end to the conflict if he wished.

Sharon rejected the idea that Israel might re-conquer disputed land that has been ceded to the PA over the past seven years - as demanded by some Israeli nationalists - saying the situation was "irreversible."

Arafat delivered a fiery speech to the Palestinian legislature in Gaza on Saturday, calling on Israel to resume peace talks immediately from the point where they left off under the former government.

Sharon says he will honor previously signed agreements but not verbal understandings such as those reached at the Camp David summit last summer and during talks in Taba, Egypt just before last month's elections.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former President Bill Clinton both said that those ideas were now null and void because Arafat had not accepted them at the time.

Sharon said that he was disappointed with Arafat's comments, and the fact he had not called for the violence to end.

Sharon has been invited to meet President Bush in Washington next week, in his first trip abroad since becoming prime minister. There he is expected to lay out his plans for a achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

Arafat and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak are also expected to meet Bush before the end of the month.