Israel's Olmert looks to extend West Bank barrier

Wednesday, January 31, 2007; 8:34 AM

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is investigating the possibility of extending a West Bank barrier to include two Jewish settlements that have been excluded from the project, his office said on Wednesday.

The left-wing Haaretz daily reported Olmert had already decided to loop the barrier around the settlements of Nili and Na'aleh, an extension that would separate 17,000 Palestinians living nearby from the rest of the occupied West Bank.

Miri Eisin, a spokeswoman for Olmert denied Olmert had made up his mind.

She said "all (Olmert) asked was to review the line" where the barrier would run near the two settlements, located about 5 km (3 miles) inside the West Bank.

A statement issued by Olmert's office said once security officials weighed in, the matter would be brought to the cabinet for discussion.

Haaretz said the government had come under pressure from settlers to overturn its decision in April to keep Nili and Na'aleh outside the West Bank barrier and surround them with separate perimeter fences instead.

The two settlements have a combined population of 1,500.

Palestinians denounce the barrier as a land grab that could deny them a viable state in land Israel captured in a 1967 war.

The International Court of Justice, in a non-binding decision from 2004, ruled the construction of the barrier on occupied land was illegal.

Israel has so far built about half of a planned 670 km (400 mile)- long barrier in the West Bank since 2002. It says the razor-tipped fences and towering concrete walls are needed to stop suicide bombers from infiltrating its cities.

Until Monday, when Palestinian militant groups killed three people in the resort of Eilat, there had been no suicide bombings in Israel in nine months.

In October Israel's high court upheld a government plan to move the barrier more deeply into a different part of the West Bank, to surround three other Jewish settlements.

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