Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Tuesday refused to dismantle Israel's network of hundreds of roadblocks across the West Bank, sparking an outcry from Palestinians, who complained that they cannot rebuild their violence-shattered economy without freedom of movement for people and goods.
Barak's comments soured an already tense atmosphere between Israel and the Palestinians just days before George W. Bush's first visit to the region as US President. Israeli construction in east Jerusalem and the West Bank and violence between Israelis and Palestinians - and among Palestinians themselves - are threatening to overwhelm Bush's peace efforts.
Jan. 1 is the day Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement celebrates its anniversary, but in Gaza, Hamas rulers banned fireworks and marches - setting off a night and day of clashes that left eight people dead and more than 60 wounded. It was the worst outbreak of infighting since Nov. 11, when Hamas forces opened fire at a huge Fatah rally, killing eight and wounding more than 80.
The eight dead included three Hamas and three Fatah supporters, officials said. Also killed were an elderly man caught in a crossfire in northern Gaza and a 14-year-old Hamas supporter shot in the southern town of Khan Younis after he exited a mosque, relatives said.
By nightfall Tuesday, the internal fighting had died down, but then a Hamas militant was killed in an Israeli attack in northern Gaza, Palestinians said. The Israeli military said it targeted armed Palestinians with ground fire.
'What if we don't want to separate?'
Removing roadblocks is a constant Palestinian demand, and Israel has pledged several times to take down some of the dozens of checkpoints that have choked economic and social life in the West Bank. Israel erected the roadblocks after the Palestinian uprising erupted in 2000, when attackers infiltrated into Israel.
On Tuesday, however, Barak said the roadblocks have proved an effective obstacle to Palestinian attacks, and except in isolated cases, they would not be dismantled. "There is no chance of effectively fighting terror without practical daily control in the field, and the roadblocks will stay," Barak said.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Barak's comments were "very unfortunate."
"I don't think we can do anything about the economy of improvement of life or revival of institution-building" as long as the roadblocks remain, Erekat said.
Barak has ordered the removal of two dozen dirt embankments and two of the 16 major West Bank checkpoints since he became defense minister in June, but the Palestinians say that has not made a significant change on the ground.
The roadblocks and Israel's plans for construction in areas the Palestinians claim are high on the Palestinian agenda for peace talks, which restarted after Bush's Mideast conference in Annapolis in November. Bush is likely to hear harsh Palestinian complaints about Israel's policies in those areas when he visits next week.
Ahead of the Bush mission, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his people they must be prepared for concessions to the Palestinians - for their own good. Even Israel's closest international allies want it to pull back in the West Bank and share Jerusalem, Olmert said in an interview published Tuesday.
When speaking of the future, "The world that is friendly to Israel ... Speaks of Israel in terms of the '67 borders. It speaks of the division of Jerusalem," Olmert said in the interview with the English-language Israeli daily The Jerusalem Post.
Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. Palestinians want those territories for an independent state, with east Jerusalem as its capital.
Olmert said Israel had to withdraw from Palestinian territory to preserve itself as a democracy and as a predominantly Jewish state.
"What will be if we don't want to separate?" Olmert said. "Will we live eternally in a confused reality where 50 percent of the population or more are residents but not equal citizens who have the right to vote like us?"
About 5.4 million Jews live in Israel alongside 1.4 million Israeli Arabs. Another 3.9 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005.