Israel barred private Palestinian vehicles from several West Bank highways on Monday, expanding a network of settler-only routes, a day after Palestinian fighters killed three young Jewish settlers in a drive-by shooting.

   

The army had billed the new restrictions as temporary to protect Israelis from further attack in the territory, which many analysts believe will become the focus of renewed violence following Israel's pullout from Gaza last month.

   

But a plan is now under consideration for permanently designating some roads for separate use by Israelis and Palestinians. "The army is discussing implementation of such a plan," a senior security source said.

   

Israel's Maariv daily said it was part of a larger blueprint to eventually separate the Israeli and Palestinian populations, but the security officials cast doubt on such a motive.

 

Road-use restrictions

   

Military commanders were due to meet on Wednesday to discuss road-use restrictions in the West Bank, Israel Radio reported.

 

Abbas is to urge US to help stop
Israeli settlement construction

Palestinians see the measures, which force them onto poorly maintained back roads, as part of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's strategy of tightening Israel's grip on West Bank settlement blocs after pulling all 8500 settlers out of the Gaza Strip.

  

In White House talks on Thursday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to urge pressure for a halt to Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank. Palestinians want Gaza and the West Bank for a future state.

   

"If they go ahead (and make the road restrictions permanent) it is the official introduction of an apartheid system," Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said. "This scheme ... would destroy any effort to revive a meaningful peace process."

   

He said creation of separate roads also bolsters Israel's barrier under construction in the West Bank. Israel says it keeps out bombers. Palestinians call it a land grab.

 

Al-Rajoub reaction

 

Abbas's adviser Jibril al-Rajoub said this was "a desperate Israeli attempt to tighten the noose on the Palestinian people in the West Bank".

 

"Such measures will never break the determination of the Palestinians and their struggle to establish their independent state. The Israelis have taken the measures under the pretext of maintaining security, but these measures will expose them to more attacks rather than bring them security.

 

"The achievement of security is based on ending the occupation and pulling out of the Palestinian territories to the 1967 border line, al-Rajoub said.

 

Al-Rajoub said the plan showed
the desperation of the Israelis 

Asked whether the new measures would affect the security coordination between Israel and the Palestinians, he said, "There is absolutely no security coordination with this Israeli government or a joint security agreement with it.

 

"Security coordination is logically based on a political perspective and on an Israeli move to end its occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Our joint agreements were smashed by Israel in 2002 when its forces stormed our security headquarters in the West Bank."

 

On whether the Palestinians could be held accountable in part for the Israeli decision, he said,"This kind of talk, taken on its abstract form, could be right, but logically it is incorrect. The recent Israeli unilateral actions and aggression against the Palestinian people is an attempt to lure the Palestinians into reacting to it.

 

"It is the Israeli occupation that should be held accountable for its aggression and settlement policies, but on our part, we should be aware of our commitments. What we need to do is mobilise pressure on the Israelis to force them meet their commitments," al-Rajoub said. 

 

Reinstatement

   

"If they go ahead (and make the road restrictions permanent) it is the official introduction of an apartheid system"

Saeb Erekat,
Palestinian chief negotiator

The latest restrictions on Palestinians mark reinstatement of measures introduced during a five-year-old uprising but which had been rolled back since a ceasefire took effect in February. The Israeli army said it would continue letting Palestinian buses run.

   

Demanding a Palestinian Authority crackdown on fighters, Israel on Monday suspended security contacts with the Palestinians and sealed off biblical Bethlehem, from where Sunday's attackers were thought to have come.

   

Two women, aged 21 and 23, and a 15-year-old youth were killed in the deadliest attack on Israelis in months. The violence stirred new doubts about a shaky eight-month-old truce and undermined hopes the Gaza pullout would spur peace moves.