Israel’s cabinet approved a new route for the controversial West Bank barrier on Sunday, giving the go-ahead for the structure to cut deep into the West Bank in order to take in two large Jewish settlement blocs.
The new route marginally reduces the amount of West Bank land enclosed by the barrier and now excludes several Palestinian villages that originally would have been surrounded.
But it still opens the way for the vast steel-and-concrete construction to envelop the Ariel and Kedumim settlement blocs in the northern West Bank.
The decision to alter the barrier’s route follows objections raised by the United States to the original route and complaints brought before Israel’s courts, political sources said.
“The changes are very important and we are committed to making a supreme effort to complete the security fence everywhere as quickly as possible,” Israel’s acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his cabinet ahead of the meeting.
Olmert has said that, in the absence of peace talks, he hopes to fix Israel’s borders with a Palestinian state by 2010 and has said that border would largely follow the barrier route.
Human rights groups criticized Sunday’s decision, saying it did not alter the fact that the Israeli government was annexing land that Palestinians want for a future state.
Security vs. annexation
“It is not a security logic but an annexation logic,” said Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for Israeli rights group B’tselem.
“What has changed now is the Israeli government is admitting it. Whereas previously the only justification for the barrier was security, it is now clear it is a political barrier.”
Israel says the 670 km (400 mile) barrier, started in 2002, is a security measure needed to stop suicide bombers infiltrating into its cities from the West Bank. Officials say the barrier has so far helped prevent dozens of attacks.
Palestinians see it as a move to seize land that Israel has occupied since the 1967 Middle East war. They say it denies them the viable state they want in the West Bank and Gaza.
Sunday’s decision means the barrier will be akin to two thin “fingers” reaching into the West Bank near the Palestinian city of Nablus to enclose settlements, rather than taking in a larger chunk of land that would have included several Arab villages.
In a statement after its meeting, the cabinet said the course of the barrier could still be altered in the future.
The United Nations says building the barrier on West Bank land violates Security Council resolutions and has said that any construction should follow the de facto border that existed between Israel and the Palestinians before the 1967 war.
The U.N. says its research shows only about 25 percent of the barrier follows that pre-1967 route.
Olmert hopes to move settlers living in outlying areas of the West Bank into the larger settlement blocs like Ariel and Kedumim as part of what he calls a “convergence plan”.
There are around 240,000 Jewish settlers living in the West Bank among 2.4 million Palestinians. Around a quarter of those settlers could be affected by Olmert’s plan.