In an effort to soothe US concerns about further impingement on Palestinian land, Israel will leave a temporary gap in the barrier near Ariel, the occupied West Bank’s second largest Jewish settlement, political sources said on Wednesday.

However, the cabinet decided to build more walls around five settlements east of the barrier, including Ariel, where about 18,000 settlers live. 

"The purpose of these fences will be to later link them to the security fence," Israeli sources told AFP.

Under international law, all settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip are illegal.

The plan calls for horseshoe-shaped stretches of fence to hem in Ariel and neighbouring settlements. Construction of these is likely to take five to six months but would be linked to the main barrier south of Qalqilya, said an anonymous source.

"As many Jews"

The aim was to have "as many Jews as possible inside the fence and as few as possible Arabs", said the source. "This was one of the most important considerations in deciding the route of the fence."

The aim of Israel's latest barriers is to have "as many Jews as possible inside the fence and as few as possible Arabs"

Anonymous Israeli source

Another Israeli official estimated the next $1 billion phase of the barrier would cut off Palestinian villages and towns with a population of 60,000 from the rest of the West Bank.

“It is a big land grab and not a security wall," said chief Palestinian negotiator Saib Uraikat.

A Western diplomat said delaying the decision on Ariel just put off an inevitable clash between Israel and its chief ally, the United States.

Israel has not given figures for the number of Palestinians cut off by the barrier in the first phase of the project.

Israel claims the barrier is designed to deter Palestinian resistance fighters.

But Palestinians fear the wall will demarcate the borders of a future homeland and further complicate a peace process already in tatters.

Illegal annexation

A UN human rights report said the wall amounted to an illegal annexation of Palestinian territory.

“The evidence strongly suggests that Israel is determined to create facts on the ground amounting to de facto annexation,” said John Dugard, the UN’s special rapporteur for human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories on Tuesday.

Palestinians' lives made more
difficult with latest move

“Annexation of this kind, known as conquest in international law, is prohibited by the Charter of the United Nations and the Fourth Geneva Convention,” he added.

Dugard also dismissed Israeli claims that the wall deterred resistance fighters from entering the Jewish state, saying occupation troops had concluded that most resistance fighters had taken advantage of flawed searches to cross through checkpoints.

The New-York based Human Rights Watch said in a letter to US President George Bush on Wednesday that Washington should punish Israel for building the barrier cutting off the West Bank, by deducting the cost from US loan guarantees.

“Even in its first phase, the barrier is taking a terrible toll on tens of thousands of people,” said Joe Stork, acting executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch.

“President Bush should ensure that the US government does its utmost to prevent these serious violations of international law. Deducting the barrier’s cost from the loan guarantees is an obvious place to start,” he said.

An estimated 200,000 to 400,000 Jewish settlers are likely to be incorporated beyond the $1.4 billion wall, further undermining efforts to tackle the issue in peace talks.