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Israelis Bar Palestinians from W. Bank Roads

Israel's decision to bar Palestinians from major West Bank (search) roads following a deadly shooting attack was part of a broader plan to completely separate Israelis and Palestinians over the next few years, according to an Israeli newspaper report Wednesday.

The driving restrictions were intended as the next step in Israel's "disengagement" plan, which began with its pullout from the Gaza Strip (search) last month and its construction of a separation barrier in the West Bank, the Maariv newspaper reported. The barrier, which snakes into the West Bank, includes many Jewish settlements on the Israeli side.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's (search) spokesman Asaf Shariv, declined to comment on the Maariv report. But he said he expected the traffic separation to be only temporary, "not something that will last."

Palestinian officials condemned the reported plan.

"If the Israeli government implements this plan, it will be an official declaration of the introduction of a new apartheid system in the West Bank. It will be worse than in South Africa," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.

The dispute came as Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) prepared to meet president Bush in Washington on Thursday.

Abbas wants Bush to reverse the newly imposed policy of keeping Palestinian motorists off main West Bank roads and pressure Israel to dismantle illegal outposts, allow free elections, officials say.

Palestinians had been banned from driving on the main West Bank roads during much of the past five years of violence, but were allowed back as tensions eased in recent months.

After three Israelis were killed in a drive-by shooting Sunday, Israel immediately reimposed the restrictions, forcing Palestinian drivers to use backroads.

The United States criticized the travel restrictions and urged Israel to work to ease the plight of the Palestinians.

Israeli officials said earlier this week that the road restrictions were intended to be permanent. Maariv reported Wednesday that the restrictions had been planned for several months under an operation called "All Flowing" that was sped up because of the attack.

Military commanders in the region were expected to have lists of the road divisions next week, but Maariv reported that many roads earmarked for Palestinians were not yet paved. Bridges and tunnels were also to be built at places where Israeli and Palestinian roads meet.

The restrictions were part of a plan that would eventually lead to a full separation between Palestinians and Israelis by 2008, which would include preventing Palestinians from working in Israel, Maariv reported.

Also Wednesday, Palestinian officials said they would open the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt over the weekend to allow hundreds of Palestinians to return home from the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

Other humanitarian cases will also be allowed to pass, said Brig. Gen. Salim Abu Safia, head of the border authority.

Israel shut the crossing when it pulled out of Gaza last month and has yet to agree to allow it to be reopened. The crossing, Gaza's main outlet to the outside world, is considered crucial to the impoverished territory's economic success in the wake of the withdrawal.