Israel might change barrier route

Monday, January 19, 2004

JERUSALEM -- Israel might change the route of its planned barrier in the West Bank because of hardships it causes Palestinians, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Sunday.

Sharon discussed the route with four senior Cabinet ministers in preparation for a Feb. 23 hearing on the legality of the project at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands.

Israel says it is building the barrier to keep out suicide bombers and other attackers. Palestinians say Israel's real purpose is to annex large parts of the West Bank and prevent the creation of a Palestinian state.

The route cuts deep into the West Bank in several places and encircles Palestinian towns and villages.

A U.N. report found that the barrier will cause hardship for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. Tens of thousands, for instance, would be cut off from their farmlands and vital services.

Sharon told his ministers that while the partially completed barrier has already been successful in preventing Palestinian attacks, it was "not satisfactory" in humanitarian terms.

"Additional thought is needed to allow for the possibility of changing the route" for humanitarian reasons, a statement from his office said.

Security officials said Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who opposes changing the route, agreed to set up a panel to handle Palestinian appeals.

Israel insists the $1 billion barrier is a temporary security measure, but its trenches, walls and fences look to many like a border.

Sharon has warned that if peace talks remain frozen in the coming months, he would impose a boundary on the Palestinians, indicating that the route of the planned barrier would be the basis of the new line.

Palestinians claim all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip for a state, with its capital in east Jerusalem -- all captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war.

The first section of the barrier, about 90 miles in the northern sector, has been completed, and Israeli security officials say it has already impeded potential suicide bombers from that part of the West Bank.

Cabinet Minister Tommy Lapid of the centrist Shinui Party has called for changes in the route for political reasons, saying that the current plan is indefensible in the world court and also in a case pending before Israel's Supreme Court.

An Israeli official said the acting attorney general told Sharon that the state prosecutor would have difficulty in defending the current plan before the Israeli court.

Many of the government's dovish critics say Israel should confine its security barrier to the pre-1967 cease-fire line between Israel and the West Bank, but Israel has never recognized that as a border.

Also Sunday, Sharon signed orders for the dismantling of three unauthorized settlement outposts in the West Bank. The stalled U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan requires Israel to dismantle dozens of outposts set up by settlers in recent years.

Meanwhile, thousands of Palestinian workers waited in long lines to cross from Gaza into Israel. The army lifted a closure it clamped on the impoverished strip following a suicide bombing last week that killed four people at the main crossing point into Israel.

Stringent checks kept people waiting for hours, and many turned away frustrated and tired after hours of standing in line, witnesses said.

In Nablus, Israeli troops arrested Ahmed Bseisi, the local leader of the Islamic Jihad. Witnesses said soldiers pulled Bseisi and two other men out of a taxi and took them away.

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