Construction of the barrier has drawn criticism from the international community and complaints from the United States. President Bush has called the barrier “a problem.” U.S. officials are reportedly concerned about the effect the barrier might have on future negotiations over disputed territory.
On Wednesday U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States is opposed to “activities by either party in the West Bank and Gaza that prejudge final status negotiations.”
The Associated Press reported that the United States “wants the barrier to run close to the Green Line” — the border that separated Israeli and Palestinian areas before the 1967 “Six Day War” in the Middle East.
During that war, Israel battled with its Arab neighbors and took control of swaths of territory beyond its borders, including the West Bank and Gaza strip, where Palestinians make up a majority of the population.
Israel has maintained military control in those areas in order to provide what it said is a necessary defense buffer.
After the war, the United Nations issued Security Council Resolution 242, calling on Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories.
Since the end of the Six Day War, Israel and the Palestinians have struggled violently over the occupied territories. Israel says that one of the reasons it must keep its military in the territories is that Palestinian officials refuse to dismantle terrorist groups that have launched attacks on Israeli civilians.
Palestinian officials have said that Israel has violated Palestinian sovereignty by continuing to support the building of Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas.
President Bush has recently advocated a “road map” for peace in the region, which calls for the Palestinian Authority to stop terrorist attacks on Israelis and calls for Israel to eventually recognize a Palestinian state and freeze settlement expansion in Palestinian territory.
A recent cycle of violence, however, has dimmed hopes for the implementation of the road map and the Israeli government says it needs the security barrier to protect innocent Israeli citizens.
The Cabinet approved Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s latest proposal for the “security fence,” which would leave a gap parallel to some Israeli settlements located within Palestinian territory in the West Bank.
Under one previous plan, the barrier would have completely bypassed the settlements, sealing them off from Israeli territory. Sharon reportedly opposed that plan because it would have left Israeli settlers outside the protection of the barrier.
Some Israeli officials later reportedly argued for yet another barrier route that would have incorporated the large Jewish settlement of Ariel, which lies 12 miles inside the West Bank. That plan would have essentially walled off and annexed a large portion of Palestinian territory.
The latest plan calls for leaving gaps in the main barrier while separate, individual barriers would be built to protect settlements located in Palestinian territory. The separate settlement barriers could eventually be joined with the main barrier.
Israeli soldiers will patrol the gaps in the main barrier.
Palestinian officials have complained that, in some areas, the latest proposed route of the barrier will still wall off large chunks of Palestinian territory, making the possibility of the establishment of a contiguous Palestinian state nearly impossible. They have also said the barrier is a threat to the peace process.
“It is a big land grab and not a security wall,” said Palestinian legislator Saeb Erekat, according to the Reuters news service. “The continuation of the building of the wall will undermine President Bush’s vision of the road map and the peace process.”
U.S. officials have reportedly pressured Sharon to modify plans for the barrier in order to leave Palestinian areas intact. The United States has also threatened to reduce financial aid to Israel if it does not comply.
Ninety miles of the barrier has been built, according to news sources, and the length of the barrier could reach 180 miles by the end of the year.
“About one-fourth of the barrier already has been built in the northern West Bank. In some parts, it runs close to Israel,” an AP correspondent reported from Jerusalem. “Elsewhere, however, the barrier dips farther into the West Bank, isolating several Palestinian villages and cutting residents off from their land.”
The newly appointed Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei said the barrier will “destroy all possibilities for peace.”
Qurei is expected to announce the formation of a new Palestinian Cabinet on Sunday. Qurei has reportedly sought to reduce the number of Cabinet officials from 24 to 12 in order to decrease political maneuvering for Cabinet seats.
Qurei recently took over for Mahmoud Abbas who resigned after accusing Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and Israeli officials of separately undermining his efforts to implement the peace plan.
Also on Wednesday the Israeli military killed one member of the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad and critically wounded another in the West Bank refugee camp of Tulkaren.
In a separate operation Israeli commandos arrested an Islamic Jihad leader, Bassam Saadi, in the Jenin refugee camp, the AP reported.
Islamic Jihad members reportedly said they would launch retaliatory attacks against Israelis.