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Israeli defence chief wants W.Bank barrier rerouted

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By Matt Spetalnick

JERUSALEM, July 6 (Reuters) - Israel's defence chief on Wednesday proposed that the government reroute one of the most controversial parts of a barrier it is building through occupied land in the West Bank, officials said.

The changes urged by Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz near the large Jewish settlement of Ariel are meant to meet the Supreme Court's order to minimise hardships to Palestinians and thereby prevent further construction delays due to legal challenges.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed to bring the proposal, which was raised during a special meeting with top security officials, to his cabinet for debate and approval, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

They said the revised route would still loop around Ariel and several other settlements deep inside the occupied West Bank but would take in fewer Palestinian villages than originally planned and would also ease restrictions on Palestinian travel.

Israel has completed more than a third of the planned 600 km (370-mile) barrier which it says keeps Palestinian suicide bombers from infiltrating the Jewish state.

Palestinians say the network of razor-tipped fencing and concrete walls robs them of some land they need for a viable state, and the World Court has ruled the project illegal.

The barrier hugs the boundary between Israel and the West Bank in many places but snakes into occupied land in others.

The segment around Ariel is one of the most disputed because the settlement of nearly 20,000 inhabitants lies 17 km (10 miles) inside the West Bank.

The full extent of Mofaz's proposed revisions of the barrier's path was not immediately clear. But one government source said: "It will make life easier for Palestinians."

That did little to mollify Palestinian complaints. "Our position on the wall remains unchanged," said Planning Minister Ghassan al-Khatib. "It is illegal and we won't accept it."

Officials also updated Sharon on legal and technical problems that have slowed construction of the barrier near Jerusalem and said top priority was being given to clearing the obstacles.

Israel rerouted large barrier segments last year after an Israeli court ruling that it should minimise land confiscation from Palestinians. The new path cuts through about eight percent of the West Bank, less than half of what was originally planned.

But court appeals have held up construction in some places.

The barrier has remained a major source of tension between Israel and the Palestinians as Sharon prepares to implement his plan to evacuate settlements in Gaza and a corner of the West Bank starting in mid-August.

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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