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BIR NABALA, West Bank (Reuters) - Israel, under international pressure to ease restrictions on Palestinians, removed a checkpoint in the occupied West Bank on Thursday that had curbed movement outside a main Palestinian city.
The move came ahead of a planned visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice next week to continue to push Israelis and Palestinians to pursue talks Washington has hoped could lead to a peace deal by early next year.
An Israeli military spokesman said soldiers had been instructed to remove concrete blocks and a checkpoint where soldiers inspected traffic leading to Bir Nabala, a town near Ramallah, where the Palestinian government sits.
It was the third such checkpoint Israel has removed this month, meeting requests from the U.S. and Middle East envoy Tony Blair to help peace moves and to bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Western-backed government.
Tawfiq Nabali, head of the Bir Nabala village council, said the checkpoint that was lifted had restricted movement for more than 50,000 Palestinians living in 15 villages near Ramallah.
"We welcome any step in which the Israeli occupation leaves us alone, living in dignity without checkpoints and racism," Nabali told Reuters.
Palestinians say hundreds of Israeli roadblocks erected in the past eight years in occupied territory stifle their economy and amount to collective punishment.
Israel, which placed most of the barriers after a Palestinian uprising erupted in 2000 when peace talks failed, says the measures are necessary to prevent suicide bombers from reaching its cities.
(Additional reporting By Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah)
Reporting by Ammar Awad, Writing by Avida Landau and Allyn Fisher-Ilan, Editing by Michael Winfrey