JERUSALEM (AP) _ Israel is rerouting its West Bank barrier to move it closer to the 1967 pre-war boundary, but it will still jut into the occupied territory to encircle major Jewish settlements, a Defense Ministry official said Thursday.
The disclosure of the fence's new route by Nezah Mashiah, head of the barrier project in the Defense Ministry, was a sign that recent international and domestic challenges would not deter Israel from keeping Jewish settlement blocs on the ``Israeli side'' of the barrier.
The barrier is an integral part of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan of ``unilateral disengagement'' from the Palestinians. The plan envisions an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements by late next year.
In Gaza on Thursday, an Israeli missile strike on a Palestinian car killed two militants and sparked calls for revenge. Israel said the two belonged to the Ahmed Abu Reish Brigade, an extreme breakaway from Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement. The group took responsibility for a wave of kidnappings in Gaza last week.
One of the dead was identified as Amr Abu Suta, a militant leader whom Israel accused of involvement in the 1992 killing of three Israeli soldiers in a Jewish settlement in Gaza.
Sharon's response to nearly four years of Palestinian-Israeli violence has been to announce a pullout from Gaza and the construction of a 425-mile barrier between Israel and the West Bank.
In Gaza just before daybreak Friday, Israeli troops moved to the outskirts of the northern town of Beit Lahiya, residents said. Israeli forces have held neighboring town of Beit Hanoun for a month, trying to prevent militants from firing rockets at Israeli towns just outside Gaza.
The barrier project has faced stiff challenges in recent weeks. The Netherlands-based International Court of Justice and a U.N. General Assembly resolution called on Israel to tear down the wall, and the Israeli Supreme Court ordered a repositioning of a key section.
Israel says it will ignore the International Court ruling and the U.N. resolution. But the Defense Ministry has drawn up a new map for the barrier that heeds the Israeli Supreme Court's order to reduce hardships for Palestinians. The new route runs closer to Israel's pre-1967 border, known as the Green Line.
Mashiah told Israel Radio that the new route would be closer to the Green Line but said it would put the Jewish settlement bloc of Gush Etzion _ home to 40,000 Israelis _ on the ``Israeli side'' of the barrier.
``Within the framework of changes following the Supreme Court decision, there is certainly movement in the direction of the Green Line,'' Mashiah said.
Mashiah stressed that the barrier would not run exactly along the Green Line, a cease-fire line from the 1948-49 war that followed Israel's creation. Israel does not recognize it as a border.
Speaking at a party meeting in Tel Aviv on Thursday, Sharon said the United States backs Israeli policy about the settlements.
``The U.S. position is that the large settlement blocs would remain under Israeli control, and the rest of the West Bank would be open to negotiations,'' he said.
Palestinians charge that the barrier route is meant to reduce the territory available to them in a future state. They claim all of the West Bank and Gaza, lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
Israel says the barrier is necessary to prevent Palestinian militants from attacking its towns and cities.
Also at the party meeting, Sharon said the United States backs Israel's right to weapons of deterrence, an oblique reference to the country's secret store of nuclear weapons.
Sharon noted that Iran is under U.S. pressure to stop its nuclear weapons program, and Libya took steps to halt its nuclear development, but ``we have received here a clear American position that says in other words that Israel must not be touched when it comes to its deterrent capability.''
Israel has never admitted possessing nuclear weapons. But the country is believed to possess dozens, perhaps hundreds, of nuclear bombs.
In Washington, a State Department official would say only that the United States supports Israel's right of self defense.