The controversial barrier being built by Israel through the West Bank amounts to the illegal annexation of Palestinian territory and must be condemned by the international community, a UN report said.
The report by the UN special rapporteur for human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, John Dugard, was immediately dismissed by Israel as politically biased.
UN report slams Israeli wall as illegal annexation of Palestinian land
Dugard warned that the wall erected in recent months would incorporate "substantial areas" of the West Bank into Israel.
"The evidence strongly suggests that Israel is determined to create facts on the ground amounting to de facto annexation," the report said.
"Annexation of this kind, known as conquest in international law, is prohibited by the Charter of the United Nations and the Fourth Geneva Convention," it added.
"The time has come to condemn the wall as an unlawful act of annexation in the same way that Israel's annexation of east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights has been condemned as unlawful," Dugard said.
The capture and subsequent annexation of east Jerusalem from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War were condemned in UN Security Council resolutions.
The United States has strongly objected to plans to incorporate Jewish settlements in the West Bank on the Israeli side of the wall.
Dugard's report was released as the Israeli cabinet prepared to meet on Wednesday to decide on the route for the next portion of the barrier.
The report swiftly drew a sharp rebuke from an Israeli envoy, who rejected the claim of annexation and accused the report of being "one-sided, highly politicized and biased".
Israel's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Yaakov Levy, said the report totally disregarded the deaths of 900 Israelis in attacks since September 2000, when the Palestinian uprising erupted.
"When judged against such background, Israel's self-defense measures, including a security fence being constructed to prevent suicide bombers from entering Israel, would appear proportional as well as within her right to self-defense," he said in a statement.
Levy dismissed the claim of annexation as a "wild accusation", saying the barrier was a purely defensive measure against Palestinian attacks.
"That is the sole purpose of the fence, it has no political connotations, definitely not in the realm which Mr Dugard chooses to politically color," he told AFP.
The UN report accepted Israel had legitimate security concerns that "cannot be denied", but called on the Israeli government to place a limit on "the violation of human rights in the name of counter-terrorism".
"A balance must be struck between respect for human rights and the interest of security," it added.
Dugard doubted the barrier would even prove to be an effective deterrent against attacks, claiming that the Israeli army had concluded that most suicide bombers had taken advantage of flawed checks to cross through checkpoints.
His report indicated that an estimated 200,000 of the 400,000 settlers are likely to be incorporated on the Israeli side of the 1.4 billion dollar wall, further undermining efforts to tackle the controversial issue in peace talks.
"The construction of the wall within the West Bank and the continued expansion of settlements, which, on the face of it, have more to do with territorial expansion, de facto annexation or conquest, raise serious doubts about the good faith of Israel's justifications in the name of security," Dugard concluded.
The report, based on a visit by the South African expert to the region in June, is due to be formally presented to the 2004 session of the UN Commission on Human Rights in March, a UN spokesman said.
The Israeli government does not recognize the UN expert's mandate and has refused to cooperate with Dugard.
© 2003 AFP