- The Washington Times - Monday, February 21, 2005

TEL AVIV — Israel’s government yesterday approved a new route for its controversial West Bank security barrier, biting off less Palestinian territory while expanding to include a large settlement bloc east of Jerusalem.

The new trajectory of the barrier, which essentially will annex about 40,000 Jewish settlers in the Jerusalem suburb of Ma’aleh Adumim, was decided on just hours after the Cabinet voted to dismantle 26 settlements in the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank and relocate about 9,000 residents.

Both the withdrawal and the security barrier reflect a policy of unilateralism adopted by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon after he declared the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as an unacceptable peace partner.

Both steps enjoyed wide support among the Israeli public. Palestinians also welcome the Gaza Strip pullback, but the barrier remains a potential stumbling block to negotiations with the new Palestinian administration.

Construction of the barrier — a combination of chain-link fence, concrete wall and razor wire designed to prevent suicide bombers from reaching Israeli cities — was delayed last year after Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that the government must take into account the hardship caused to Palestinians.

As a result, unfinished portions closer to Jerusalem and the southern West Bank were redirected closer to the green line — the 1949 armistice border, which is considered the basis for peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The new plan slices off 7 percent of the West Bank instead of 16 percent.

“It’s a fact that we’ve decided to establish this barrier as close as possible to the green line so that there is no misconception about it,” said Avi Pazner, a government spokesman. “We hope that the Palestinians understand that it is being constructed to ensure Israel’s security.”

The International Court of Justice, the judicial arm of the United Nations, declared in a nonbinding ruling last year that Israel’s decision to build the fence inside the West Bank rather than on the green line contravened international law.

Although it took issue with the ruling, the United States has quietly objected to allowing the barrier to run deep into the West Bank, arguing that it could prejudice the outcome of negotiations.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is lobbying Israel to stop building the fence now that there’s a chance for peace talks. Militant groups like Hamas have said such a move should be a condition for declaring an official truce after the four years of violence.

“Voting for continuing the route in any part of the Palestinian-occupied territories, at a time that the parties are hoping to renew negotiations on the basis of the road map, is not good news for the peace process,” said Palestinian Labor Minister Ghassan Khatib. “Erecting a wall around the settlements will only help consolidate” Israeli control over the settlements.

Although Ma’aleh Adumim and the Etzion settlement bloc will be included on the Israel side of the fence, a final decision hasn’t yet been made whether it will encircle the northern West Bank settlement of Ariel, about 10 miles from the green line.

“My residents deserve no less security than in other municipalities,” said Ariel Mayor Ron Nachman.

Several hours after the Cabinet voted 17-5 in favor of the withdrawal, Mr. Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz signed the evacuation order, marking the first time that an Israeli government has moved to dismantle settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

“This will not be an easy day, nor will be it be a happy day,” Mr. Sharon said.

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