Israel is preparing to extend a controversial security fence in the West Bank farther eastward, in order for it to encompass more Israeli settlements. Palestinian officials have condemned the move, saying it amounts to Israel effectively seizing more territory.
The move, confirmed by the defense ministry. will mean about 40,000 additional settlers will be on the Israeli side of the fence.
Among the settlements to be included in the new course of the fence is Ariel, one of the largest in the West Bank, with about 20,000 residents.
Ariel is close to the Palestinian city of Nablus, which is regarded by the Israeli army as a stronghold of militant Palestinian groups.
About 3,000 Palestinians will be also be affected by the re-alignment, which will separate them from the majority of Palestinians living on the other side of the barrier.
Israel began building the security fence last year, in a bid to prevent Palestinian militants from crossing into the Jewish State to carry out terrorist attacks.
Israel's frontier with the West Bank is 365 kilometers long. The Government has decided to fence the whole line, but has yet to publish the exact route.
About $1.5 billion has been allocated for the first two stages of the project.
The Israeli Defense Ministry also wants to build a second fence on the eastern side of the West Bank, in order to sever Palestinian areas from the Jordan River Valley.
During a tour last week to inspect the construction of the fence, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon spoke of the importance of an eastern security barrier, although it still has not been fully planned or funded.
Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat accused Israel of using the fence to limit the size of a future Palestinian state and of sabotaging international efforts to bring peace to the region.