The Israeli Army has taken the first step towards building its separation barrier round Ma'ale Admumim, the largest Jewish settlement in the West Bank.
The army has started issuing land expropriation orders for construction of the barrier along a route which would cut 25 km (15 miles) into the West Bank, bring significant tracts of Palestinian land within the Israeli side of the barrier, and link the settlement with Jerusalem. The Palestinian leadership complains that hopes of a two-state solution will be undermined by the move and that it will drive a substantial wedge eastwards of Jerusalem, seriously impeding "contiguity" between the northern and southern West Bank.
Details of the move were disclosed to mayors of neighbouring Palestinian villages on Tuesday as the Army was completing its evacuation of four out of the 120 West Bank settlements in the final stage of the disengagement process.
The US administration, which has in the past made clear its opposition to the routing of the barrier where it significantly deviates from the pre-1967 borders with Israel, is thought to be studying the proposal, which follows a ruling by the Attorney General Menachem Mazuz.
Although the intention to build the wall round Ma'ale Admumim was known and ratified by the Israeli cabinet in February, Michael Tarazi, a spokesman for the Palestinian Negotiating Unit, said yesterday that the new route approved for the southerly section of the barrier meant it would be taking in more mainly undeveloped Palestinian land "than we ever expected". The total area of the West Bank that would be on the Israeli side of the relevant section of the barrier would be around 67 square kilometres.
He said that, if sustained, the plan would "effectively destroy the two-state solution". He added that Israeli plans for a tunnel through which Palestinians could pass from the West Bank village of Al Ezariya towards Anata, to solve the problem that the two sections of the West Bank would be cut off from each other, showed that Israel was not thinking in terms of a viable separate Palestinian state.
The proposal has triggered friction between Labour ministers in Ariel Sharon's coalition cabinet, with the Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz complaining that the route should have been submitted first to the cabinet. Although the Palestinian land that will end up on the Israeli side of the fence is mainly uncultivated, Palestinian ministers say it includes grazing grounds, some olive groves and around 250 cisterns supplying water to the Palestinian population.
But his Labour ministerial colleague Haim Ramon has said the problem of contiguity could be resolved by the building of a road for Palestinians running from Bethlehem in the south to Ramallah in the north.
The US embassy in Tel Aviv declined to comment on the move but said the administration's view of the barrier was well known.
"We have concerns where the route takes Palestinian land or imposes hardship on the Palestinian people. Ariel Sharon has pledged that Ma'ale Admumim will always be part of Israel and the settlement is among the big blocs which President Bush conceded last year he envisaged going to Israel in any final status settlement.
The Geneva Accord, drawn up by a team led by the leader of the left-wing Yahad party, Yossi Beilin, and the Palestinian official Yasser Abed Rabbo, also envisages it being part of Israel in such a settlement. The Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mark Regev said the barrier was for security, not to create a de facto border, and its route could be changed in any final settlement. He added that the residents of Ma'ale Admumim were entitled to the same protection as any other Israeli citizen.
© 2005 Independent News & Media Ltd. / UK