Israel said Wednesday that it had ordered the seizure of land owned by Palestinians to build a separation barrier that will encompass the West Bank’s largest Jewish settlement.
Palestinian officials objected vehemently to the plan, which in effect would annex the settlement of Maale Adumim to Israel. They called on the Bush administration to intercede.
“This is a disastrous decision,” said Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians’ chief negotiator.
The plan would place Maale Adumim, five miles east of Jerusalem, inside the barrier, which Israel is building around the West Bank. The settlement has repeatedly been cited by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as among the Jewish population centers in the West Bank that Israel intends to keep if the Palestinians achieve statehood.
The first of the expropriation orders called for the seizure of 22 acres in the village of A-tur, and local Palestinian leaders said they were told that more notices would follow. The landowners have the right to appeal the orders to Israel’s Supreme Court, and Palestinian officials indicated they would do so.
Erekat said that in the wake of Israel’s withdrawal from the Jewish settlements of the Gaza Strip and a small swath of the northern West Bank, “we are looking for hope and peace, but this step undermines any attempt to resume meaningful negotiations.”
Israeli officials referred questions about the land seizure to the military, which issued the order and has broad discretion in such cases. The letter sent to landowners, signed by Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh, commander of Israeli forces in the West Bank, cited “special security circumstances prevailing in the region.”
Israel already had announced plans to build 3,600 additional homes in Maale Adumim, most of which would lie between the settlement and Jerusalem. That initiative was criticized by the Bush administration this year. Israel’s Cabinet in February voted to have the barrier take in the settlement but did not specify its route.
Palestinians say the project will sharply limit their access to Jerusalem from the West Bank, as well as restrict their ability to travel between the northern and southern halves of the territory.
Challenges to Israel’s high court have in several instances resulted in orders to reroute the 400-mile-plus barrier, which is a mixture of fencing and high concrete walls, augmented by patrol roads, watchtowers and trenches.
Israel says it is building the barrier to keep out Palestinian suicide bombers, but the World Court has ruled it is illegal because it appropriates large tracts of Palestinian land.
Also Wednesday, Israel said it had finalized an arrangement giving Egypt primary responsibility for policing that Arab nation’s border with Gaza.
Israel now has a heavy troop presence in the frontier zone, which is a major route for arms smuggling.
Sharon has said Israel wants to relinquish control of the Egypt-Gaza border as part of its pullout from the Palestinian territory.
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said the accord gave Egypt “comprehensive” responsibility to prevent the smuggling of weapons into Gaza.
Palestinian troops are to play a role in policing the Egypt-Gaza border as well, though it has not been spelled out. Israeli troops will retain control of Gaza’s border with Israel.
Mofaz also said the date for handing over the now-vacant settlements to the Palestinian Authority would be moved up. He told Army Radio that Sept. 15 was the new target date, because the removal of settlers, completed this week, had gone much more quickly than expected.
Previously, Israel had said it expected the settlements would be turned over sometime in October.
Israel is demolishing the settlers’ homes, a process expected to take about 10 more days, after which it will dismantle its military bases in Gaza.