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Israel to alter path of security barrier


JERUSALEM - Israel is working to reroute parts of its West Bank separation barrier to make it less burdensome on the Palestinians and more acceptable to the United States, a senior aide to Israel's prime minister said yesterday.

Israel is continuing to build the barrier, but Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government has made minor adjustments and is considering further changes, said the aide, Zalman Shoval.

Sharon has recently spoken of measures he could take if he concludes that Middle East peace efforts are hopelessly deadlocked. Sharon expects to visit Washington in the next few weeks, and Israeli officials acknowledge that they will be seeking U.S. support before proceeding with unilateral steps.

Last week, Sharon said he was considering plans to withdraw most Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip. The new proposals on the West Bank barrier are to be presented to visiting Bush administration officials this week, Shoval said.

He spoke in response to an article published yesterday in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, which said parts of the barrier that would cut deep into the West Bank would be altered so the route runs closer to the West Bank boundary.

"The aim is to make the line more efficient and alleviate the problems that some Palestinians face," Shoval said.

The barrier faces two court fights. Israel's Supreme Court will hear petitions today from two civil rights groups, including a request to declare the barrier's route illegal.

Later this month, the world court in The Hague will review the legality of the barrier. The United Nations General Assembly, with the backing of the Palestinians, has asked the court for an advisory opinion.

The Bush administration has generally been supportive of Israel during the past three years of fighting with the Palestinians. But the president has criticized Israel for building the barrier inside the West Bank, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war. The barrier is about one-quarter built.

Israel says the barrier is needed to stop suicide bombings, but the Palestinians condemn it as a land grab.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said the talk of limited adjustments to the barrier is not acceptable.

"I hope the Americans will simply tell Israel, 'Stop building the wall,'" Erekat said.

Also yesterday, Israeli troops entered the Palestinian town of Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, searching for a suspect and a tunnel used for smuggling weapons.

When the suspect, Asraf Abu Libdeh, fled a house and refused orders to stop, he was shot and killed, the Israeli military said.

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