Israel has swatted aside a formal complaint by the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, over its refusal to halt construction of a wall that cuts deep into the West Bank and slices through Palestinian neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem.
Mr Annan said the fence "could damage the longer-term prospects for peace by making the creation of an independent, viable and contiguous Palestinian state more difficult".
Israel said it was speeding up construction and may take other "unilateral steps" if the Palestinians delay peace talks. "Our patience is running out," the Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, declared.
Israel claims the barrier of concrete, razor wire, ditches and electric fences is needed to stop suicide bombers who have killed more than 450 people in the three-year Palestinian Intifada. But Palestinians say the fence is a crude attempt to annex territory as well as being a strategic blunder that will only bring more bloodshed.
Last week the US punished Israel by cutting nearly £170m from its £1.7bn annual aid package to Israel, and President George Bush said peace talks should not be prejudiced by "walls and fences". That move was also brushed aside as a meaningless gesture by the government of Ariel Sharon.
If completed as planned, the barrier will forcibly cut off some 240,000 Palestinians from their communities and leave 160,000 Palestinians in enclaves that will be almost completely encircled by a barrier. Palestinians face extraordinary delays getting through crossing points in the places where the wall is already completed. Even with a permit or ID card, gates are only opened for 15 minutes three times a day. Farmers are denied access to fields and employees to their jobs, creating intolerable hardship, according to the UN chief.
Mr Annan said the barrier would cut off 16.6 per cent of West Bank land, home to 17,000 Palestinians in the West Bank and 220,000 in East Jerusalem. "If the full route is completed, another 160,000 Palestinians will live in enclaves, areas where the barrier almost completely encircles communities and tracts of land."
Under Israeli army orders, all Palestinians living between the barrier and the 1967 border must obtain special permits to move from one place to another, in many cases for access to jobs or farmlands - while Israeli citizens and Jewish immigrants can move freely in and out of those areas at will.
The UN move came as Mr Sharon tentatively opened a line to Yasser Arafat by sending his son, Omri, to a two-day Israeli-Palestinian seminar at Ditchley Park, a Georgian mansion near Oxford, which is also being attended by Jibril Rajoub, the Palestinian leader's national security adviser.
Israeli officials have ostracised Mr Arafat for nearly two years. Mr Sharon declared him "irrelevant", but he had previously sent Omri, now a Likud MP and one of his closest confidants, to talk to him in Ramallah. Neither Israeli nor Palestinian officials expect anything concrete to emerge from the new contacts at this stage.
The Ditchley gathering, attended by politicians and security experts from the two sides, was designed to explore options for renewing peace negotiations. One Israeli participant, Isaac Herzog, a Labour MP, described it as an "academic" exercise. Although its formal British sponsor is the Labour Friends of Israel, political sources in Jerusalem told The Independent that it was initiated by the Foreign Office. Ditchley, where Winston Churchill spent weekends during the Second World War, is frequently used for discreet official conferences.
The talks are part of a quickening of diplomatic activity in recent days. Both Israelis and Palestinians are looking for a way out of the quagmire. British and American leaders are pressing for a resumption of negotiations on the "road- map" for peace.
Mr Sharon's popularity rating is plunging, with the voters and commentators impatient for movement.
¿ Israeli soldiers shot dead a Palestinian policeman near a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip yesterday, Palestinian witnesses and medics said. The army expressed its "sorrow and regret" over the incident in which Sayed Abu Safra, 35, was killed. It said that the soldiers involved had been suspended.
Witnesses said that soldiers shot the policeman in the head as he tried to keep a mentally disabled villager back from the perimeter fence around the Nissanit settlement.
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