Sharon defies US on West Bank fence

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The fence that Israel is building to seal off the West Bank will enclose a Jewish settlement deep inside the occupied territories, Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister, has said.

His vow on the settlement in Ariel, in defiance of US pressure, came as William Burns, a State Department official, said the growth of Jewish settlements "could threaten the future of Israel as a Jewish democracy".

The "separation fence" is a series of concrete walls and high metal fences. Israel claims the sole aim is to stop would-be suicide bombers crossing into Israel but that claim is belied by the fact the fence is not being built along the 1967 "Green Line" that divides Israel from the occupied West Bank. Instead, it cuts deep inside the West Bank, and Palestinians and international observers alike, including Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's National Security Adviser, have said it appears to be an attempt to grab more land.

The US has been pressing Israel to build the fence along the Green Line. In particular, the US urged Israel not to go ahead with the Ariel section, which will have to cut 17 miles into the West Bank so the settlement is on the "Israeli" side.

The Israeli government had indicated it might bow to the American pressure but Mr Sharon told a meeting of Likud MPs: "The separation fence will be built east of Ariel and east of Kedumim [another settlement]. If we reach a point where the matter once again creates a dispute, we will sit with the Americans again."

Mr Burns told a US-Arab Economic Forum in Detroit that Israel's support for the settlements was putting the peace process - and the "two-state solution" envisaged by President Bush - in jeopardy. He was referring to predictions that Jews will be a minority in Israel and the occupied territories by the year 2020.

The UN called yesterday for governments to condemn the fence as illegal.