Israel should turn over Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem to the Palestinians as part of a peace deal with the moderate government of President Mahmoud Abbas, Israel's deputy prime minister said Friday in some of the frankest remarks to date about what Israel might be willing to relinquish.
Ramon, a close ally of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said keeping all of Jerusalem would endanger the city's future as Israel's capital and suggested that many Arab sections be turned over to Palestinian sovereignty in return for international recognition of the Jewish neighborhoods Israel has built in east Jerusalem since 1967.
Israel captured east Jerusalem from Jordan in 1967 and annexed it, a move the international community has never recognized.
"This annexation threatens Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish people. It will bring about its transformation into a Palestinian capital with a Palestinian majority," Ramon told Israel Radio.
In other developments:
Olmert made some conciliatory statements of his own at a political party function on Thursday evening, offering to free some prisoners as a gesture to Abbas.
Olmert said he would bring a proposal to his Cabinet next week to free some Palestinian prisoners who were not involved in deadly attacks against Israelis. Israel holds about 11,000 Palestinian prisoners, and winning their freedom is a key Palestinian goal in contacts with Israel.
"We have a partner" for peace talks, Olmert said, calling Abbas a moderate.
Abbas and Olmert have been meeting regularly leading up to a U.S.-sponsored peace conference in November. But as Israel and Abbas' government draw closer, Israel has increasingly taken harsher measures against Gaza.
On Wednesday, the government decided to declare Gaza "hostile territory" and further isolate its residents, cutting back their fuel, electricity and nonessential goods. The decision is aimed at doing what Israel's military has failed to do - halt rocket barrages fired nearly daily by Palestinian militants from Gaza into Israel.
A joint announcement released Thursday by the Israeli rights groups also said the step constituted "collective punishment" and would worsen Gaza's "existing humanitarian crisis." Since the Hamas takeover, Israel has closed Gaza's border crossings to nearly everything but humanitarian aid, adding to the economic hardship in the already impoverished territory.
Israeli government spokesman David Baker would not respond to the statement, but said Friday that the government's decision on Gaza was vital to protect Israelis.
"Any situation in which Palestinian terrorists fire upon Israeli cities and towns is an untenable situation, one we won't tolerate, and we will use the means necessary in order to enable our citizens to live in peace and quiet once again," Baker said.
The announcement from the Israeli groups, including B'Tselem and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, came in wake of similar warnings from international organizations like Oxfam and condemnations from the Palestinian government of President Mahmoud Abbas.
Palestinian militants have fired thousands of rockets into Israel since 2001, killing 12 people and disrupting life in Israeli communities near Gaza. Gaza's Hamas rulers have done nothing to stop the rocket fire, and its militant wing has been firing mortars at border crossings.
There was no sign in Gaza that the new decision had been put into effect Friday. Israeli security officials said Thursday that implementation would begin over the coming days. Fuel for cars and for Gaza's power plant will be drastically reduced, but the diesel fuel that runs hospital generators will be unaffected, the officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss details of Israeli defense policy.
Mustafa Barghouti, formerly the Palestinian government's information minister, was briefly detained by soldiers at the A-Ram checkpoint. Speaking to AP Television News, Barghouti said that despite the talks between Israel and Abbas, Israel was moving to thwart Palestinian hopes for the future of Jerusalem.
"Now people realize that all these talks are leading to nothing. What we have here is a process of imposing facts on the ground and the first fact is the isolation of Jerusalem and the elimination of the possibility of having Jerusalem as capital of a Palestinian state," Barghouti said.