Israel closes off West Bank, Gaza as Passover begins

JERUSALEM — Israel sealed the West Bank and Gaza Strip to protect against Passover attacks yesterday, while Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vowed to invite his Palestinian counterpart for talks as soon as he takes office.

Sharon also pledged not to miss an opportunity for peace created by the Iraq war but set a string of conditions the Palestinians would have to meet for negotiations to succeed. He was evasive on whether he would dismantle dozens of illegal outposts set up in recent years by Israeli settlers.

Dismantling the outposts is one of the first steps Israel is asked to take as part of a U.S.-backed "road map" that envisions a Palestinian state with provisional borders.

Sharon has expressed major reservations about the plan, and his chief aide, Dov Weisglass, met this week with U.S. officials in Washington to lobby for changes.

However, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said the plan would be presented unchanged as soon as the Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas — also known as Abu Mazen — is sworn in.

Israel clamped a blanket closure on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, meanwhile, due to intelligence warnings that Palestinian militants would try to carry out attacks on Israelis during the Jewish holiday of Passover, which started yesterday.

Last year, a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up in a hotel in the Israeli seaside resort of Netanya during a Passover meal, killing 29.

In Jerusalem, police and soldiers were visible on most street corners, and military jeeps patrolled constantly.

Israelis prepared the ritual Passover dinner without the gas masks they carried during the Iraq war. Passover — also known as the festival of freedom — is more than a religious observance.

It also brings families together to commemorate the Jews' biblical flight from slavery in Egypt. This year, many Jews are making a connection between their forebears' deliverance from Pharaoh's tyranny and the removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.