JERUSALEM -- Israel announced plans yesterday for 500 new housing units in the West Bank, after an apparent US policy shift that has infuriated the Palestinians. The Palestinians oppose all Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where they hope to establish an independent state.
And in the latest sign of trouble for Israel's contentious West Bank barrier, officials said construction of a large section will be significantly delayed because of a court ruling highlighting the hardships the structure has imposed on Palestinians.
The barrier and settlement construction are linked to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's "disengagement" plan to separate Israel from the Palestinians.
The plan includes a full withdrawal from Gaza next year. At the same time, Sharon wants to strengthen large blocs of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. He says the moves will boost Israel's security and preserve its Jewish majority.
The barrier is a centerpiece of the disengagement plan. Israel says the structure, which is about one-quarter complete, is meant to prevent Palestinian suicide bombers from entering the country.
But sections would stretch into the West Bank, separating tens of thousands of Palestinians from jobs, hospitals, and farmlands. The Palestinians say the structure is an illegal attempt to prevent them from creating a viable independent state.
The barrier has suffered a series of legal setbacks in recent months, putting pressure on Israel to move the barrier's path closer to its 1967 frontier. Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war.
In June, Israel's Supreme Court ordered military planners to redraw the route of a planned 20-mile stretch near Jerusalem, saying the original plans would cause too much hardship on local Palestinians.
The precedent-setting decision forced Israel's defense establishment to reexamine other sections of the barrier.
As a result of that review, Dany Tirza, one of the barrier's chief planners, told lawmakers yesterday that Israel will make changes in 12 places along a roughly 60-mile stretch from the Jewish settlement of Elkana to Jerusalem.
He said the route of the barrier in the 12 places would be moved toward the Green Line, the old frontier between Israel and the West Bank. The changes will prevent the confiscation of more than 4,000 acres of Palestinian land, he said.
Because of the changes, Tirza said, the section won't be completed until the end of 2005, a year behind schedule, according to participants in the meeting. Construction has not begun on most of this section of the barrier.
In addition to the Supreme Court decision, Israel is grappling with the fallout from a UN International Court of Justice ruling in July that the barrier is illegal.
Although the ruling was nonbinding, it has increased international pressure on Israel to reroute or tear down the structure.