JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) has ordered quicker work to finish Israel's contentious West Bank separation barrier (search), a senior official said Wednesday, setting off Palestinian accusations that he's undermining peace prospects.
The official said the order applies especially to the section enclosing Jerusalem — a sensitive part of the barrier that Palestinians contend is an attempt to take over part of the disputed city.
"The order is to progress wherever possible," National Security Council head Giora Eiland told Israel Radio. "The prime minister ordered the work to go ahead even faster."
Begun more than two years ago, the 425-mile barrier is still only about one-third completed, blocking access from the West Bank across Israel's narrowest point, nine miles from the Mediterranean Sea and Israel's main population centers.
Holding up the process is a combination of court appeals, funding shortages and lack of government prioritizing. Despite periodic declarations, Sharon's government has not shown determination to finish it.
Palestinians complain that the barrier dips into their territory to encircle settlement blocs, in effect annexing about 7 percent of the West Bank to Israel. The most sensitive section is Jerusalem, where the route of the barrier cuts the West Bank off from east Jerusalem, a traditionally Arab section that Palestinians claim as the capital of the state they want to create.
In appeals to Israel's Supreme Court, Palestinians have successfully challenged the route of the barrier in several places where it cuts villages off from their farmland or creates other hardships. Some cases are still pending, blocking construction along key points of the route.
"Regarding our position at the Supreme Court, we will try to speed it up and put forward our position in a more convincing way so these holdups can be resolved," Eiland said.
The Haaretz daily reported Wednesday that Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has presented a modified route for the barrier around the Ariel settlement, deep in the West Bank, removing some Palestinian villages from the enclosure — an attempt to avert court challenges. The report could not be confirmed.
"Jerusalem is a priority, and we hope that if the legal issues of Jerusalem can be resolved, it will just be a matter of months to finish the fence and close off Jerusalem as we originally intended," Eiland said.
Israel began building the barrier of fences, trenches, walls and electronic devices at the height of violence with the Palestinians, when several times a month suicide bombers were crossing the unmarked line between Israel and the West Bank and blowing themselves up in Israeli cities.
Violence has dropped significantly since a February cease-fire, and there have been only four suicide bombings in Israel in the past year. Israelis say the partially-built barrier, along with other security measures, have succeeded in foiling dozens of suicide bombing attempts.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat (search) said Sharon's order "undermines the efforts to revive the peace process."
"We urge the U.S. and President Bush to exert maximum efforts in order to have Mr. Sharon comply with the cessation of violence and cessation of building the wall," Erekat said.
A senior Israeli official said Wednesday that Israel will ask Washington for hundreds of millions of dollars to help foot the bill for the $2 billion pullout.
Also Wednesday, Sharon spokesman Asaf Shariv said an agreement with the Palestinians over destroying houses in the Gaza settlements stands.
"Israel will demolish the houses," he said. "The Palestinians will take care of the debris and will not bear the expenses." He said either Israel or an international agency would foot the cleanup bill.