JERUSALEM – Israel will spend $11.1 million to change completed portions of its West Bank barrier, building new roads, underpasses and tunnels to try to ease Palestinian conditions, Defense Ministry officials said Thursday.
The planned alterations come after two legal setbacks for the barrier. Last week, the International Court of Justice (search) in the Hague, Netherlands, declared the barrier to be illegal and recommended that it be dismantled.
A week earlier, the Israeli Supreme Court (search) ordered the army to change the route of the barrier in a 20-mile stretch near Jerusalem, saying it was causing too much hardship on the local Palestinian population.
Also Thursday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon formally invited the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party (search) to begin talks on joining his coalition, the latest attempt by the Israeli leader to shore up his government as he prepares to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.
Sharon's office said Shas leader Eli Yishai had accepted an invitation to begin negotiations next week.
Hard-line opposition within the current coalition has left Sharon with a minority coalition, supported by only 59 of the 120 members of parliament.
The invitation to Shas had been expected. Sharon also has invited opposition Labor Party and the religious United Torah Judaism Party (search) to begin talks.
He hopes to create a stable coalition to carry out his planned withdrawal from Gaza and four West Bank settlements by 2005.
Israeli officials said this week that they would be rerouting the planned 425-mile barrier to adhere to the Supreme Court ruling. The changes announced Thursday were part of that effort.
Israel has refused to recognize the world court ruling, saying it has no authority to deal with the issue.
Israel began building the barrier — a complex of walls, trenches and razor wire — two years ago, and it is about one-quarter complete.
Israel says the structure is needed to keep Palestinian militants from entering Israel. But the barrier dips into the West Bank, cutting off farmers from their land, hindering travel between towns and drawing Palestinian accusations that Israel is trying to redraw its borders.
Israel captured the West Bank in 1967. The Palestinians hope to establish an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The Defense Ministry officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there are no plans to remove existing portions of the barrier. Instead, it will build new roads, tunnels and underpasses to facilitate Palestinian travel. The officials did not say when the changes would be completed.
Near the West Bank town of Tulkarem, Palestinians have to travel through a large, tedious checkpoint that can take hours. A new road that will run under the barrier will lead to the elimination of the checkpoint, the officials said.
In addition, the ministry plans to invest more money in buses for children who have been cut off from their schools by the barrier and rely on Israeli-funded transportation to get to and from school, the officials said.
As new portions are built, the Defense Ministry is making sure that Palestinians are not cut off from lands, fields and nearby towns, the officials said.
Cartographers are remapping the unbuilt portion of the barrier to bring it closer to the so-called "Green Line," the unofficial frontier that existed between Israel and the West Bank before the 1967 Mideast war.
The barrier is a crucial part of Sharon's plan to withdraw from all Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements. Sharon hopes to complete the pullout next year.
Also Wednesday, the army arrested two Palestinian women in the West Bank town of Jenin. The army did not say why the arrests were made.
One of the suspects was identified as a 22-year-old sister of a senior member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (search), a militant group affiliated with Yasser Arafat's Fatah (search) faction, who was arrested 10 days ago, Palestinian officials said.
A 17-year-old girl was also arrested along with her brother. They also are related to Al Aqsa militants, the officials said.
Wednesday's arrests brings to four the number of women arrested in the town in the past few days, they added.