RAMALLAH â€” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has approved a rerouting of Israelâ€™s separation barrier to take in two more illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the Israeli media reported yesterday.
The rerouting still needs to be approved by the Israeli Cabinet, but if it is, the barrier will be moved five kilometres eastward from the 1967 border and ensnare some 20,000 Palestinians who will be able to move neither west into Israel nor east into the rest of the West Bank.
The new route will lengthen the barrier by about 12 kilometres and cost Israel around $40 million.
The Palestinian Authorityâ€™s chief negotiator Saeb Erekat condemned the move saying it â€œundermines everything we’re doing to revive the peace processâ€.
â€œThe wall is the continuation of unilateralism and dictation, and destroys the prospects of any real negotiations,â€ he said. Nearly 60 per cent of the barrier has now been completed, according to UN figures, though that does not take into account the latest rerouting.
Including occupied East Jerusalem, but not including the latest change of route, 8.5 per cent of West Bank land falls or will fall to the west of the barrier.
Half a million Palestinians are adversely affected.
An advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice in 2003 found the barrier illegal wherever it veered away from the 1967 borders.
The news comes as a fragile truce appeared to be taking hold in the Gaza Strip between armed elements of the two main Palestinian factions, Fateh and Hamas.
A member of Al Aqsa Martyrsâ€™ Brigades, Bashir Issa, was critically wounded in a drive-by shooting early Wednesday, and remains in intensive care. No faction claimed responsibility for the attack, and no counteraction has yet been taken.
The truce was called early Tuesday after five days of violence saw at least 30 people killed and nearly 100 wounded.
Tuesday and Wednesday, Fateh and Hamas began exchanging hostages that were taken during the violence.
Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan yesterday said all hostages had been exchanged, something confirmed later by Fateh spokesman Tawfiq Abu Khoussa.
“Dozens of hostages have been released on both sides,” Abu Khoussa told AFP. However, tensions are still high. Abu Khoussa yesterday acknowledged that the atmosphere had improved but complained that Hamasâ€™ Executive Force was â€œnot helping the restoration of confidenceâ€.
Radwan, meanwhile, slammed a US-aid package designed to boost security forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as incitement.
â€œThere is no doubt that this is part of American policy aimed at provoking an escalation and a civil war in the service of a Zionist plan,” Radwan told AFP.
â€œEach time the American administration sees that we have arrived, or are on the verge of arriving, at an agreement [on forming a unity government], it sends [US Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice to poison the atmosphere or announces financial aid to maintain tensions among Palestinians,” he said Wednesday.
US President George W. Bush has committed $86 million to provide training and non-lethal equipment to forces loyal to Abbas. Washington is mulling broadening the assistance to include not only the 4,000-strong Presidential Guard but also the National Security Forces, which comprises some 40,000 almost exclusively Fateh troops.
According to reports, Egypt is trying to convince both Hamas and Fateh of the need for a united security force that is under the exclusive control of neither faction. Spokesmen for both groups have welcomed the move, but it remains to be seen how serious they would be in realising it.
Israeli ex-minister guilty of sexual harassment
Elsewhere, an Israeli court found Haim Ramon, the ex-justice minister and one of the founders of Olmertâ€™s Kadima Party, guilty of sexual harassment yesterday.
Ramon, who has said he will appeal the conviction, could face up to three years in prison. The court found him guilty of having forcibly kissed a female soldier against her will.
The conviction means Olmert will have to cast a wider net for a replacement for his erstwhile close confidante and personal friend as he prepares a reshuffle of the Israeli Cabinet.
Yesterday, a statement from Olmertâ€™s office expressed regret at the verdict.
Olmert himself is facing a criminal investigation for his role in the privatisation of Israelâ€™s second largest bank in 2005, while Israeli President Moshe Katsav has suspended himself from official duties after facing indictment on four counts of rape.