JERUSALEM, July 6 (Reuters) - Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Wednesday ordered construction of Israel's West Bank barrier to be accelerated and approved a proposal to reroute one of its most controversial sections cutting through occupied land.
"Budget is no object. Build it as quickly as possible," an aide quoted Sharon as telling top security officials. "Build it in several places at once so that construction is speeded up."
Israel has built more than a third of the planned 600 km (370 mile) barrier, which it says keeps out Palestinian suicide bombers. But construction has been held up by appeals filed by Palestinians who stand to lose land or mobility to the project.
Palestinians say the network of razor-tipped fencing and concrete walls robs them of land they need for a viable state, and the World Court has ruled the project illegal.
Sharon vowed last year to complete the barrier by October 2005. Officials now say December is a more realistic deadline.
In a bid to meet a Supreme Court order to minimise hardship to Palestinians and thus prevent further delays due to legal challenges, Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz urged changing the barrier route near the large Jewish settlement of Ariel.
Sharon agreed to bring the proposal, raised during Wednesday's meeting, to his cabinet for debate and approval, Israeli 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.
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 8 percent of the West Bank, less than half of what was originally planned.
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
- For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit https://www.trust.org/alertnet