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Israel Considers Moving Security Barrier Farther into West Bank

Israel's government says it is considering moving the West Bank security barrier eastward, farther into the West Bank to enclose two Jewish settlements. VOA's Jim Teeple reports from Jerusalem, Palestinian officials have condemned the proposal.

Israeli officials confirm that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert could bring a measure before the cabinet that would move Israel's controversial security barrier five kilometers to the East, to enclose the Jewish settlements of Na'aleh and Nili where about 1,500 Jewish settlers live. If the proposal is carried out it could enclose about 20,000 Palestinians between the security barrier and Israel's 1967 border with the West Bank.

Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper, which broke the story, says the proposal was made by settlers living in the two settlements. According to Ha'aretz, Prime Minister Olmert has already approved the plan, something strongly denied by Israeli officials.

"I would describe it [the proposal] as one that the prime minister asked to be looked into," said Miri Eisin, spokeswoman for Mr. Olmert. "This is both because the Supreme Court asked to look into it, but also because the prime minister has tried as much as possible to make sure the line of the security fence does not do hardship to the Palestinians on the one hand, but on the other hand gives the best security to the citizens of Israel. It has not yet been brought to the cabinet. He has not changed the cabinet decision. The prime minister of Israel cannot change a cabinet decision. There has to be a new cabinet decision if there is a change."

Last April, Israel's cabinet approved the current route of the roughly 700-kilometer security barrier. Their decision to leave the two settlements Na'aleh and Nili outside of the boundaries of the barrier was based in part on an Israeli Supreme Court decision that found parts of the barrier caused disproportionate harm to Palestinians.

Palestinian officials were quick to react to the proposal to reexamine the route of the barrier. Saeb Erekat, who is the chief Palestinian negotiator with Israel, says if the two settlements are brought inside the security barrier it will hurt recent efforts to revive the Arab-Israeli peace process.

"Well I believe this is extremely dangerous, Na'aleh and Nili they are in the Modi'in sector of settlements within the 1967 lines actually," he said. "I believe this will undermine efforts being exerted to revive the peace process and particularly here the efforts of Dr. Rice [U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice] who is exerting maximum efforts with the Israelis, the Palestinians with the Arabs and with the international community in order to revive a meaningful peace process."

If Israel's cabinet does move the security barrier to enclose the two settlements it will be the first time the barrier has been moved to the East. Previous adjustments to the barrier have moved it to the West, closer to Israel's 1967 border.

The separation barrier is about two-thirds complete. The barrier which roughly follows Israel's 1967 border with the West Bank is seen by Israel's government and many of its citizens as a vital defense against Palestinian suicide bombers. Palestinians say the barrier, which cuts into sections of the West Bank, is a land grab that is ultimately designed to cripple any future Palestinian state, a charge that Israeli officials strongly deny.