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Israel reroutes West Bank barrier after court order

JERUSALEM -- Israel's Defense Ministry has mapped out a new route for the separation barrier in the West Bank that heeds a Supreme Court order to reduce hardships for Palestinians and runs closer to Israel's 1967 border, officials said yesterday.

Word of the new route came as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel insisted he would go ahead with his plan to pull soldiers and settlers out of the Gaza Strip despite a huge demonstration against it Sunday, when about 100,000 protesters created a human chain across some 55 miles from Gaza to Jerusalem.

''I decided to proceed with the disengagement plan because it is clear that Israel cannot remain in the Gaza Strip forever," Sharon said in a statement issued by his office. His plan calls for evacuating the 8,000 settlers from Gaza next year, but many members of his own Likud Party oppose it.

A senior American envoy, Elliot Abrams, is to visit Israel next week to discuss Sharon's ''unilateral disengagement" plan, US officials said.

In the West Bank, a solution appeared near in the political crisis for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, as his prime minister was reported ready to rescind his resignation. Palestinian officials said Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei was weighing assurances from Arafat that he would have more authority to make reforms.

Qurei could announce the withdrawal of his resignation letter after a meeting today with Arafat, a move which would end a two-week standoff and ease the turmoil in the Palestinian territories. The prime minister resigned earlier this month in frustration at Arafat's refusal to let him carry out reform in the security forces and deal with growing turmoil in the Palestinian areas.

Elements of the new route for the barrier will be presented this week to Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz for their approval, security officials said on condition of anonymity. Details of the new map were not available, but the officials said it would run much closer to the internationally recognized cease-fire line of 1967 than originally planned.

The decision to redraw the route was in line with an order by the Israeli Supreme Court last month to make the barrier less disruptive of Palestinian lives. But it ignored a ruling by the International Court of Justice -- the United Nations' highest judicial body -- that the barrier is illegal and must be completely torn down.

Acting on the World Court's judgment, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a resolution last week calling on Israel to dismantle the barrier and compensate Palestinians whose lands were confiscated.

The system of fences, walls, and razor wire cuts into the West Bank at several points, keeping many Palestinians from reaching their jobs, schools, and farms. About one-fourth of the barrier, which will eventually run 425 miles, has been built.

Israel says the structure prevents suicide bombers infiltrating from the West Bank. Nearly 1,000 Israelis have been killed in Palestinian attacks in nearly four years of fighting. Palestinians argue that the barrier could become a new political boundary, effectively annexing large parts of the West Bank.

The Supreme Court ordered Israel to reroute about 20 miles in the Jerusalem area, responding to a specific appeal by residents.

But Defense Ministry analysts also were altering the route significantly in the southern sections of the West Bank where construction has not yet begun, the security officials said.

Also yesterday, Israeli troops shot and killed a 50-year-old Palestinian woman in the Gaza Strip town of Khan Younis as she slept in her bed, Palestinian witnesses said.

The Israeli army said troops in the area came under fire and shot back, but knew nothing about any casualties.

A 12-year-old girl wounded in the morning shooting died in a hospital later, Palestinians said.

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