JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wants to shield several large Jewish settlements by extending Israel's security barrier deep into the West Bank, but he would leave gaps in the section in hopes of defusing U.S. objections that the fence could mark a permanent border, a Sharon adviser and a settler leader said Tuesday.
The plan, denounced by Palestinians as a land grab, comes up for approval before the Cabinet today and is likely to pass.
In its bid to stop Palestinian suicide bombers and other attackers, Israel has already built almost 100 miles of the barrier that will eventually stretch, depending on the route, up to four times that distance.
Portions of the barrier -- a network of fences, walls, razor wire and trenches -- run on West Bank land, but to date it has largely kept to the Israel-West Bank dividing line known as the "Green Line," diverting in some places a few miles into the West Bank to enclose Jewish settlements.
Under the new proposal the barrier would veer almost 20 miles into the territory, cutting the northern section of the West Bank in two for much of its width. The new section will take several months to build and would incorporate on the "Israeli" side a bloc of settlements -- Ariel, Kedumim, Karnei Shomron and Emmanuel -- where some 45,000 Israelis live.
The United States backed the Palestinians' opposition to the barrier's extension when the idea was first raised several months ago. But excluding Ariel -- with 18,000 residents, the second-largest West Bank settlement -- is politically tough for Sharon, who draws much of his support from settlers and their backers.
Sharon himself avoided discussing the issue in detail until Monday, when he said that Ariel would be included and that "if we reach a point where the matter once again creates a dispute, we will sit with the Americans again."
In an apparent attempt to dampen criticism, the proposal to be brought before the Cabinet leaves gaps throughout the barrier "at least for the time being," said Sharon adviser Zalman Shoval, adding that the idea was discussed with U.S. officials.
The United States sees the barrier as possibly defining an eventual border. If Ariel is encircled and put on the "Israeli" side, it would imply that Israel plans to pre-empt negotiations and annex that part of the West Bank. Leaving a gap implies flexibility over the final border and might deflect U.S. criticism, at least for now.
The gaps would be filled in with "security obstacles" including patrols by soldiers "to make it as impenetrable as possible," he said. Shaviro said the gaps would also be policed with electronic sensors and motion detectors.
If attackers make it through the gaps, Israel might close off the barrier completely, Shoval said.
Israel says the barrier is necessary to stop suicide bombers who alone have killed more than 400 people in three years of fighting -- and it points to the success of a fence already in place for years around the Gaza Strip, where no suicide bombers have crossed in that period.
The Sharon government initially resisted calls, coming mostly from the more dovish opposition, to build the barrier -- precisely because it suggests an abandoning of the land on the other side and raises complex questions about which settlements can be incorporated in the protected areas. But it relented under tremendous pressure.
"The Palestinians have only themselves to blame for the construction of the fence," wrote former Defense Minister Moshe Arens in a commentary in the Haaretz daily. "Every murder carried out by a Palestinian suicide bomber contributed to the decision."
The completed sections of the barrier run along the northern West Bank and around parts of Jerusalem. In some areas, it cuts off Palestinian farmers from their land and isolates villages and towns as it snakes around Jewish settlements. Residents say they are cut off from jobs, schools and clinics.
"The continuation of the wall in any shape or form inside the West Bank is undermining the peace process," said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
The Palestinians have demonstrated against the barrier and cite it as one of the issues blocking implementation of the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, which envisions a Palestinian state by 2005.
On Tuesday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher did not rule out reductions in loan guarantees because of the barrier.
Yehezkel Lein, a researcher at B'tselem, an Israeli group that monitors human rights conditions in Palestinian areas, said that under the new extension, 11,000 Palestinians would be caught in the fenced-in area and unable to reach the rest of the West Bank, and tens of thousands of others would be otherwise inconvenienced.
"It's clear that there is the intention to prepare the ground for future annexation of settlements (to Israel) ... and to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state," Lein said.
A U.N.-appointed human rights expert said governments should condemn the fence as an illegal act of conquest, in the same way they have criticized the taking of east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.
In a report made public Tuesday in Geneva, South African lawyer John Dugard said the "wall" cuts deep into Palestinian territory, blocking off huge swaths of land. He said it primarily is intended to protect Israeli settlements and not, as the Israelis claim, prevent suicide bombings and other attacks.
Israel accused Dugard -- the U.N. expert on human rights in the Palestinian territories -- of bias and said it was acting in legitimate self-defense.