The U.S. State Department is expected to strongly criticize the West Bank separation fence in its annual human rights report, due for publication in March. The U.S. administration has already informed Israel that the issue of the fence will take up a significant part of the chapter on Israel and the territories.

U.S. questions on the barrier have focused on the discrepancies between Israeli promises that the fence will not burden the lives of the Palestinians living near it and the facts on the ground. The Americans believe that the function of the fence is problematic and infringes on the freedom of movement of residents of nearby villages.

While compiling its report, the State Department was "flooded" with information from human rights groups operating in the territories. The U.S. has, however, promised Israel that it will try to maintain "a balance" in the final report.

Meanwhile, officials at the Prime Minister's Bureau in Jerusalem held a preliminary discussion yesterday on Israel's line of defense that will be presented during the International Court of Justice's (ICJ) discussion on the separation fence.

Israel is set to argue that the court in The Hague has no authority to deliberate the legality of the fence and to explain the reasons for the construction of the barrier. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will be presented with a draft of the argument early next week.

It was decided during yesterday's meeting to set up a number of teams to handle the matter, under the coordination of Sharon's bureau chief, Dov Weisglass. The legal team will be headed by Alan Baker, the Foreign Ministry's legal adviser; the diplomatic team will be headed by Foreign Ministry director-general Yoav Biran; and the security team will be led by Mike Herzog, the defense minister's defense secretary.

Former ambassador Meir Rosen will also assist with legal matters and contacts with non-government organizations. Public relations matters will be overseen by Foreign Ministry deputy director-general Gideon Meir.

Israel's response will be formulated and presented by British international law expert Prof. Daniel Bethlehem, who has appeared before the ICJ in The Hague on several occasions.

Jerusalem is also closely monitoring the Palestinian preparations for the discussion that are being coordinated with the Egyptian, Jordanian and other foreign ministries, as well as the Arab League - in an effort to present a "united Arab front".

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan is likely to appear before the court.