JERICHO, West Bank – Israel confirmed Tuesday that it is building a new road for Palestinians in the West Bank, prompting complaints that an increasingly separate road system is meant to seal Israeli control over a large chunk of land near Jerusalem, even as the sides are trying to revive peace talks.
Israel said the 16-kilometer (10-mile) road will help connect Palestinian communities that would otherwise be cut off by a loop of Israel's separation barrier that is to reach deep into the West Bank.
Palestinian officials accused Israel of creating facts on the ground and undermining trust.
"How can we establish a contiguous Palestinian state, in the context of this policy of dividing the Palestinian land and turning it into isolated islands?" said Nabil Abu Rdeneh, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The row over the road comes at a particularly sensitive time.
Israeli and Palestinian teams are trying to draft a joint declaration that would guide future peace negotiations. The teams first met Monday, will have a second session next week and are to present to the document at a U.S.-hosted conference in November.
The document is to address the most difficult issues in the conflict, such as borders, Jerusalem, Israeli settlements and Palestinian refugees.
Israel insists it is ready to negotiate a peace deal. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his parliament on Monday that he would not miss this opportunity and warned that failure to reach agreement would mean a "demographic struggle steeped in blood and tears."
At the same time, though, Israel has been pressing ahead with its contentious West Bank separation barrier, including a segment around Jerusalem, known as the "Jerusalem Envelope."
Planned to keep out Palestinian attackers, the barrier will also slice off about 10 percent of the West Bank, and some Israeli leaders have suggested it should form the basis of a future border. According to such proposals, the Palestinians could be compensated for the loss of territory in a land swap.
In the Jerusalem area, the Israeli measures have had the most far-reaching repercussions for a future Palestinian state. The barrier encircling Jerusalem has been largely completed, but a gap of several kilometers (miles) has been left on the eastern side.
According to a government-approved route, the barrier would dip deep into the West Bank in that area, in order to incorporate not just the Maaleh Adumim settlement of 30,000 residents, about three kilometers (two miles) from Jerusalem, but also outlying Jewish enclaves, for a total of 60 square kilometers (23 square miles).
The construction is on hold because of an appeal to Israel's Supreme Court by the Council for Peace and Security, a group of hundreds of retired Israeli security officials who have proposed a much smaller loop.
The barrier route, as proposed by the government, would drive a deep wedge into the West Bank, to the midpoint between Jerusalem and the Jordanian border, jeopardizing the contiguity of a Palestinian state.
The Defense Ministry said Tuesday that it is planning to build a road that would run on the "Palestinian side" of that wedge, starting south of Jerusalem.
"Due to the construction of the security fence in Maaleh Adumim, a need arose to build a road to directly connect the Bethlehem and Judea regions (southern West Bank) and the Jericho and Jordan Valley area (in the east), in order to improve quality of life for the Palestinians," a ministry statement said.
The road will be built on about 400 acres (162 hectares), of which 56 acres (23 hectares) were expropriated from Palestinian land owners, the ministry said. Palestinian municipal officials said a total of 275 acres (110 hectares) have been expropriated.
Shaul Arieli, a former Israeli peace negotiator and member of the Council for Peace and Security, urged Israel not to go ahead with the wide barrier loop and the new road. "You cannot talk about a Mideast conference and in the meantime create facts on the ground that create a reality that cannot enable a final peace deal," he said. "If you want to go to a peace conference, you have to stop these actions."
Benny Kashriel, the mayor of Maaleh Adumim, said the proposed road is meant to ease the daily lives of Palestinians. He said Palestinian motorists would eventually be able to drive from the southern to the northern West Bank without encountering any Israeli checkpoints.
The mayor denied charges that the road construction is indirectly linked to plans to expand Maaleh Adumim by building 3,500 more homes on the last stretch of empty West Bank land just east of Jerusalem.
The project, known as E-1, remains on hold because of U.S. pressure, he said. If built, E-1 would cut off a future Palestinian state from its intended capital, east Jerusalem.
The new Maaleh Adumim bypass road could eventually erode opposition to the E-1 project, Arieli said. "If they build this road, they can say there is Palestinian contiguity," he said.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said he had no information about the new plans. "We're going to look into it," he said.
Israel is building another road that could in the future connect the northern and southern West Bank. It runs to the east of Jerusalem, and for a stretch has lanes for Israeli and Palestinian traffic, divided by a tall wall in the middle. The Israeli lanes connect to Jerusalem, the Palestinians lanes bypass the city.
According to a recent U.N. report, an increasingly separate road system is emerging in the West Bank.
Some 1,660 kilometers (1,032 miles) of West Bank roads for mainly for Israeli use, and Palestinian access is restricted by checkpoints and a permit system, the report said.