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On the West Bank today, Israeli troops shot dead a senior leader of the group Islamic Jihad. Israeli officials said the man was responsible for numerous attacks on Israeli citizens. A few hours later Palestinians fired rockets into Israel from the Gaza Strip, and Israel responded with an artillery salvo into Gaza. Meanwhile, the Israeli government has drawn up a contingency plan to permanently separate Israeli and Palestinian traffic in the West Bank. NPR's Ivan Watson reports from Jerusalem.
IVAN WATSON reporting:
Route 60 is the main north-south highway for the West Bank. It winds through hills and valleys, past Palestinian villages and nearby red-roofed Jewish settlements.
(Soundbite of traffic)
WATSON: But for a week now the entrances to many of the Palestinian communities have been blocked off by fresh piles of dirt and boulders. Israel also banned privately owned Palestinian cars from traveling on long stretches of Route 60. Palestinian taxis are still allowed, but otherwise only Jewish settlers and Israeli troops are to be seen on the road now. Last weekend a young Palestinian mother named Maha Mohammed(ph) stood on the side of the deserted highway, cradling a baby and holding her young son's hand, as she tried for an hour to flag down a taxi to take her on what would normally be a 10-minute drive to the next town.
Ms. MAHA MOHAMMED: (Through Translator) I blame everybody. Both sides, the Israelis and the Palestinians, are making our life difficult.
WATSON: Over the past year Israel had gradually reduced travel restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank, as the violence of the Palestinian uprising abated. But that abruptly changed last week when Palestinian gunmen carried out two nearly simultaneous drive-by shootings against Jewish settlers on Route 60. Raanan Gissin, an adviser to the Israeli prime minister, says so far these are only temporary travel restrictions. But he warned that if the violence continues, Israel could implement a broader plan aimed at completely separate Israeli and Palestinian road networks in the West Bank.
Mr. RAANAN GISSIN (Sharon Adviser): So there are only two options here. Either the Palestinians will rein in terrorists and will prevent that from happening, or we will have to take harsher measures there and apply some of those measures that are in that contingency plan.
WATSON: At a busy junction outside the settlement of Gush Etzion, teen-age Israelis hitchhike at the spot where three Israelis were killed and three injured in one of the drive-by shootings.
(Soundbite of traffic; door closing)
WATSON: A crude stone memorial has been erected here, topped by a banner that reads in Hebrew, `We won't forget, and we won't forgive.' Settler Yanon Netonel(ph) stopped his minivan to pick up one of the hitchhikers. He said he feels safer with Palestinians banned from this highway, but added that the only long-term solution would be to move more Jewish settlers here.
Mr. YANON NETONEL (Settler): We have to settlement here more people and be the majority here. This will be the main thing that we have to do to protect us.
WATSON: Barely a mile away an overweight Palestinian woman collapses, wheezing on a rock on the side of Route 60.
Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)
WATSON: Around her, dozens of Palestinians spill out of taxis on the roadside and climb a dirt barrier leading to another set of taxis that operate within the blockaded town of Halhul(ph).
(Soundbite of activity; train whistle)
WATSON: Salah Ta'mari is a Palestinian Legislative Council member whose hometown of Bethlehem has been cut off since the drive-by shootings. He calls the current travel restrictions a form of collective punishment, which will only inspire more violence in the future.
Mr. SALAH TA'MARI (Palestinian Legislative Council Member): It's impossible. If they stay in place, that means instead of dismantling the infrastructure of militant organizations, they will be backed by thousands of young men, who are desperate and who are sick and tired with the Israeli occupation and with the international community.
WATSON: An Israeli security official says if adopted, the separation plan would require Israel to upgrade the crude footpaths and poorly maintained dirt roads that many Palestinians now rely on to get around the West Bank. Critics in the Israeli media called it a racist plan, comparing it to the apartheid regime that once ruled South Africa. Ivan Watson, NPR News, Jerusalem.
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