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The large settlement blocs of Ariel, Ma'aleh Adumim and Gush Etzion will be on the Israeli side of the separation fence, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decreed yesterday.

The decision was delivered at a meeting with senior legal and defense officials to discuss revisions to the fence's route. Only part of the new route was approved at the meeting.

The revisions were made following a High Court of Justice ruling in June that vetoed part of the fence because of the damage it caused to local Palestinians. Planners reviewed the entire route in light of this ruling, and recommended eliminating most of the "bulges" into the West Bank. That raised speculation that some of the large settlement blocs would wind up being excluded, but Sharon insisted that the major settlement blocs remain inside.

Ma'aleh Adumim, the largest settlement, was originally not included inside the fence at all for fear of Washington's reaction. But Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz repeatedly promised that it would be, and yesterday they stuck to this position. The defense establishment offered several alternatives for including Ma'aleh Adumim, and Sharon responded: "Plan everything with Ma'aleh Adumim inside, and we'll decide later."

A government source predicted that the route around this settlement would be upheld by the High Court, since there are no Palestinian villages in the area.

In contrast to Ma'aleh Adumim, all the Gush Etzion settlements were originally slated to be inside the fence, but following the court's ruling, Deputy Attorney General Mike Blass argued that the justices would never approve this route, as there are Palestinian villages and fields between the settlements.

The defense establishment then proposed a compromise, in which the fence twists and turns to avoid imprisoning Palestinian villages but still surrounds all the Gush Etzion settlements. Sharon and Mofaz accepted this suggestion, and Sharon decided that since the route still includes all the settlements, this change does not need to be approved by the cabinet.

With regard to Ariel, the original plan called for "fingers" off the main fence that would surround Ariel and the three other nearby settlements of Immanuel, Kedumim and Karnei Shomron. But due to American opposition, the government then decided to build local fences around these settlements but postpone connecting them to the main fence.

At yesterday's meeting, the fence's chief planner, Danny Tirza, said that 55 kilometers of fence in the Ariel region are now under construction, while one section is being delayed by a High Court injunction. Sharon responded: "It's not yet clear how big the finger will be, but Ariel will remain in the fence."

The government source predicted that the Ariel fence will pass the High Court, since there are few Palestinians in that area. Nevertheless, Sharon decided to continue postoning the hook-up between the Ariel fence and the main fence.

Sharon also approved some other sections yesterday. In the southern Hebron Hills, for instance, he accepted the proposal to move the fence to the Green Line, thereby excluding the settlements of Maon, Carmel and Sussya, which were originally slated to be inside. He also decided to resubmit this entire section of the fence to the cabinet for approval, since substantial changes were made. That will happen in two to three weeks, once the planning is completed.

In contrast, no decision was made on the section near Rosh Ha'ayin, where there is an argument between the legal and defense establishments over how close to the town the fence should pass. Nor was there any detailed discussion of the Elkana-Jerusalem section, to which the court's June ruling related. The proposal for this section, which will be discussed at a later date, is that most of it be moved to the Green Line, or even inside Israel where topography so requires. Only the Givon-Givat Ze'ev settlement bloc and a few settlements right on the Green Line, such as Har Adar, Modi'in Ilit and Mevo Horon, will remain on the Israeli side.

A sizable portion of the meeting was devoted to discussing how the state would respond to petitions to the High Court against the fence.