No Separating Israel and Palestinian Traffic, Officials Say

Officials in Jerusalem have clarified that Israel has no new plans to separate Israel and Palestinian traffic on the roads of the West Bank. The clarification comes in the wake of harsh U.S. criticism of the restrictions imposed by Israel on Tuesday on Palestinian vehicular traffic in the territories.

The traffic restrictions were put in place following the terrorist attack on Sunday at the Gush Etzion junction and near Eli, in which three Israelis were murdered. Despite the fact that Fatah's military wing claimed responsibility for the attack, there are increasing signs that Hamas gunmen from the Hebron area were the perpetrators.

For the most part, Hamas has refrained recently from claiming responsibility for terror attacks. The organization does not want to be seen as violating its commitment to maintain a period of calm in the territories, nor does it want to provide the Israel Defense Forces and Shin Bet security service with clues as to the identity of the perpetrators.

IDF sources say the decision to impose restrictions on Palestinian vehicular traffic on the West Bank roads stems from concerns regarding the possibility of additional attacks in the future - not necessarily by the same cell that operated this week, but also by other terror networks that may seek to imitate Hamas' success.

Security forces have also received warnings recently regarding plans on the part of Palestinian groups to carry out more attacks - both drive-by shooting on the West Bank roads, and also suicide attacks within the Green Line. Fears regarding suicide attacks in Israel focus on Islamic Jihad, and particular the organization's Tul Karm network, which has been responsible for two suicide bombings this year - at Tel Aviv's Stage club, and at the Hasharon mall in Netanya. These attacks claimed 10 Israeli lives.

Vice Premier Shimon Peres said yesterday that the political echelon had not held any discussions on the closing of the roads, and that the defense establishment must come up with alternative methods of dealing with the problem of terror attacks along the West Bank roads.

"There has been no decision on the separation of roads," Peres said. "All options have to be discussed, and the political echelon is the one that has to make the decision on the matter."

Officials in the Prime Minister's Office concurred that the government had not made any decision regarding the separation of Israeli and Palestinian traffic, with one source noting that the military commanders in the field made such decisions in keeping with security requirements.

Environment Minister Shalom Simhon (Labor) said he would use this Sunday's cabinet meeting to demand clarifications regarding the traffic restrictions imposed by the Israel Defense Forces, saying that they constituted a severe blow to the Palestinians' daily routine.

One political source confirmed yesterday that the government did have a contingency plan for separating Israeli and Palestinian traffic on the West Bank roads, but noted that it would be implemented in full only in the event the Palestinian Authority collapsed.

According to the source, the IDF is implementing portions of the plan on some of the West Bank roads as an immediate response to terror attacks. Other sources in Jerusalem bemoaned the lack of coordination between the political and defense establishments on the issue, commenting that the IDF is gradually implementing this contingency plan.

Sources in the office of Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said the issue was under review, and that thus far the only official decision relates to a ban on private Palestinian vehicular traffic on West Bank roads.

Contrary to reports over the past few days, Israel has refrained from completely cordoning off Hebron and Bethlehem in the wake of Sunday's attacks, but security at checkpoints around the two cities has been tightened.

Border crossings

Meanwhile, the international community is becoming increasingly angry over Israeli and Palestinian failure to make progress on the issue of the border crossings, with both the United States and Europe pressuring Israel to take steps to resolve the problem urgently.

The Quartet's Middle East envoy, James Wolfensohn, passed on a long and detailed letter on the matter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Although Wolfensohn refrains from voicing direct criticism of Israel, the letter does constitute a "scolding" of sorts, and infers dissatisfaction with Israel's actions in this regard.

Among other things, Wolfensohn writes that the issue of the Rafah crossing must be resolved as soon as possible, defining the matter as "very critical."

Wolfensohn also criticizes the lack of progress made on issues related to freedom of movement and the passage of Palestinian agricultural produce through the border crossings.

Sources in Jerusalem say Wolfensohn is frustrated by the lack of progress. While criticizing the Palestinians, he also expresses his dissatisfaction with the difficulties the Israeli defense establishment is putting in the way of implementing the Sharm el-Sheikh understandings.

Sources in the international community have also voiced concerns over the fact that Israel is not taking any visible steps to make progress ahead of the Palestinian elections, and this is weakening Abbas.