JERUSALEM – Israel has decided to shorten the route of its West Bank security barrier (search) in hopes of easing hardships on the Palestinians and receiving U.S. support for the structure, a senior aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) said Sunday.
Israel says it is building the barrier to block homicide bombers, but the project has received heavy criticism in large part because of the hardships it causes for Palestinians.
The barrier has virtually enclosed some Palestinian population centers, making it difficult for residents to reach jobs, schools, farmland and medical services in the West Bank.
In other developments, Israeli forces on Sunday killed a fugitive from the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (search) in the Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. In all, troops killed three Palestinian militants, including a leader of the Islamic Jihad group, over the weekend in Gaza.
The violence comes days after Sharon said he would evacuate 17 of 21 Gaza Strip (search) settlements as well as some West Bank settlements. Sharon has said he would carry out his plan, aimed at reducing friction with the Palestinians, if peace efforts fail in the coming months.
Israeli security sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Israel plans to step up military pressure on the Palestinians in the near future to ensure Sharon's Gaza evacuation plan is not perceived as an Israeli defeat. They did not say whether the latest attacks in Gaza were part of this strategy.
The changes in the West Bank barrier's route will be made mostly around the town of Qalqilya and other areas where Palestinian population centers were to be surrounded, said Zalman Shoval, an adviser to the prime minister.
Israel wants to "make things as easy as possible for Palestinians who need to get to their fields (and) to have less checkpoints," Shoval said.
The decision comes weeks before the World Court in the Netherlands opens hearings into the legality of the barrier. With Palestinian backing, the U.N. General Assembly has asked the court to give an advisory opinion on the barrier.
While many countries, including the United States and members of the European Union, have recognized Israel's right to self defense, they have objected to the route of the barrier, which dips deep into the West Bank in some sections.
Shoval said the new route would certainly make the barrier shorter, but could not confirm a report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the structure would be shortened by 60 miles. The barrier, which is about one-fourth complete, had been expected to stretch about 450 miles.
The new plan will be presented to U.S. Mideast envoys who are to arrive in Israel this week, Shoval said.
Sharon's spokesman, Assaf Shariv, said the decision was also made in part due to a request by Israel's Supreme Court.
He did not elaborate, but the court has agreed to hear a case brought by Israeli civil-rights activists challenging the legality of sections built on West Bank land.
State Prosecutor Edna Arbel has said the current route of the barrier would be difficult to defend before the Supreme Court.
In Sunday's violence, Israeli forces raided the Rafah refugee camp along the Egypt-Gaza border, seeking to arrest a PFLP fugitive, the army said. The man tried to escape from a window in the building he was hiding in, and troops shot and killed him, the army added.
The shooting came a day after an Israeli missile strike hit the car of Aziz Shami, described by the Israeli army as an Islamic Jihad leader who was planning a major attack on the Jewish settlement of Netzarim in the heart of Gaza.
Islamic Jihad and the Islamic group Hamas are responsible for most of the more than 100 bombings in the past three years. Hundreds of Israelis have been killed and wounded in the attacks.
Also Saturday, Israeli forces fired at two men running toward a fence that separates between Jewish settlements and Palestinian areas of the Gaza Strip, the army said. Palestinian security forces said one of the men, an Islamic Jihad militant, was killed and another escaped.
Meanwhile, two Israeli Arab political activists were indicted for allegedly spying and planning attacks for the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, Israeli media said.
The suspects, brothers Gassam and Sirhan Atmala, were senior activists in Balad, an Arab political party, and were arrested several weeks ago, Army Radio reported. Party officials denied any wrongdoing.