August 25, 2005
Israel said today it had ordered the seizure of land owned by Palestinians to build a separation barrier that will encompass the West Bank's largest Jewish settlement.
Palestinian officials objected vehemently to the plan, which effectively annexes the settlement of Maale Adumim to Israel. They called on the Bush administration to intercede.
"This is a disastrous decision," said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator.
The plan would place Maale Adumim, five miles east of Jerusalem, inside the security barrier that Israel is building around the West Bank. The settlement has been repeatedly cited by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as among the Jewish population centers in the West Bank that Israel intends to keep if and when the Palestinians achieve statehood.
The first of the expropriation orders called for the seizure of 22 acres in the village of A-tur, but local Palestinian leaders said they were told that more notices were to follow. The landowners have the right to appeal the orders to Israel's Supreme Court, and Palestinian officials indicated they would.
Erekat said that in the wake of Israel's withdrawal from the Jewish settlements of the Gaza Strip and a small swath of the northern West Bank, "we are looking for hope and peace, but this step undermines any attempt to resume meaningful negotiations."
Israeli officials referred questions about the land seizures to the military, which issued the order and has broad discretion in such cases. The letter sent to landowners, signed by Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh, the commander of Israeli forces in the West Bank, cited "special security circumstances prevailing in the region."
Israel had already announced plans to build 3,600 new homes in Maale Adumim, most of which would lie between the settlement and Jerusalem. That initiative was criticized by the Bush administration this year. Israel's Cabinet in February voted to place the settlement inside the barrier, but without specifying its route.
Palestinians say the building project will sharply limit their access to Jerusalem from the West Bank, and restrict their ability to travel between the northern and southern halves of the West Bank.
Challenges to Israel's high court have in several instances resulted in orders to reroute the 425-mile separation barrier, which is a blend of fencing and high concrete walls, augmented by patrol roads, watchtowers and trenches.
Israel built the barrier to keep out Palestinian suicide bombers, but the World Court ruled it illegal because it appropriates large tracts of Palestinian land.
Also today, Israel said it had finalized an arrangement handing Egypt the primary responsibility for policing the Arab nation's border with Gaza. Israel currently has a heavy troop presence in the frontier zone, which is a major route for arms smuggling.
Sharon has said Israel wants to relinquish control of the Gazan-Egyptian border as part of its pullout from Gaza. Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said the accord gives Egypt "comprehensive" responsibility to prevent the smuggling of weapons into the territory.
Palestinian troops are to play a role in policing the Egypt-Gaza border as well, but it has not been spelled out. Israeli troops will retain control of Gaza's borders with Israel.
Mofaz also said that the timetable for handing over the settlements to the Palestinian Authority would be speeded up. He told Army Radio that Sept. 15 was the new target date because the removal of settlers completed this week had gone much more quickly than expected.
Previously, Israel had said it expected that the settlement land would be turned over to the Palestinians in October.
Israel is demolishing the settlers' homes, a process expected to take about another 10 days, after which Israel will dismantle its military bases in Gaza and the troops will leave.