JERUSALEM, Dec 25 (Reuters) - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's cabinet on Monday approved the removal of 27 Israeli roadblocks in the occupied West Bank, a move officials said was meant to bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Israel has been under U.S. and European pressure to take steps that could help strengthen Abbas of Fatah after he called early elections against his Hamas rivals.
Israel says its checkpoints and unmanned roadblocks -- usually piles of rubble on roads linking towns or villages in the West Bank -- are meant to prevent militants from launching attacks, while Palestinians call them collective punishment.
In addition to the roadblock decision, Olmert's cabinet could authorise the release of some Palestinian prisoners later this week, officials said.
An Israeli source said removal of the 27 roadblocks would allow goods to be transported more freely in the West Bank, which has hundreds of roadblocks and checkpoints in all.
Israeli officials said removing the roadblocks would take time and they did not provide a start date.
'The removal ... is a step in the direction of ending all internal closures in order to ensure the free movement of goods and people in the West Bank and East Jerusalem,' senior Abbas aide Saeb Erekat said.
He estimated the number of roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank at 400.
Olmert's cabinet also agreed on Monday to make improvements at the Karni commercial crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip in order to speed the flow of goods.
The Israeli source said travel restrictions on senior Palestinian officials and medical crews would also be eased.
Israel beefed up checkpoints in the occupied West Bank after a Palestinian uprising erupted in 2000 and put additional restrictions on movement after Hamas, whose charter calls for the Jewish state's destruction, took office in March.
'We reached the conclusion that we must certainly begin relieving (pressure) at the checkpoints, especially in areas that do not pose a threat -- to ease movement a little inside the villages and between the villages,' Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz said earlier.
During Olmert's first formal meeting with Abbas on Saturday, the Israeli leader agreed to transfer $100 million in withheld tax revenues to Abbas, bypassing the Hamas-led government.
Even though Gaza militants have yet to free a captured Israeli soldier, Olmert suggested on Sunday that Israel could release some Palestinian prisoners before a Muslim holiday that starts later this week.
Palestinian officials said they expected additional announcements by Israel this week but offered no details. (Additional reporting by Corinne Heller in Jerusalem and Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah)