Jerusalem Israel's Cabinet on Sunday affirmed a plan to surround Jerusalem with a barrier, despite protests by Palestinians, who say the Israelis are unilaterally redrawing the disputed city's boundaries and shifting its demographic balance in favor of Jews.
The Israeli ministers acknowledged about 55,000 Palestinian residents in four neighborhoods will eventually be cut off from their city by the separation barrier, meant to stop Palestinian bombers, and promised to come up with a plan by Sept. 1 on how to alleviate some of the hardships.
Critics warned that despite the new provisions, tens of thousands of Palestinians, who have Jerusalem residency rights and pay municipal taxes, would probably face major delays in crossing through 11 gates in the barrier every day on their way to jobs and schools. Only half of the barrier has been built.
Palestinian officials rejected the Israeli Cabinet decision.
"Israel is not serving the peace process nor its security well with such acts, but rather places more obstacles in the path to peace," Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said.
The 40-mile Jerusalem barrier - one of the most sensitive sections of a larger West Bank complex - also was expected to include the largest West Bank settlement, Maaleh Adumim with nearly 30,000 residents, on the Jerusalem side, further tilting the demographic scale. Currently, about one-third of the city's 700,000 residents are Arabs, who live in east Jerusalem, captured by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war.
The Palestinians hope to establish their capital in east Jerusalem, a traditional Arab commercial, religious and social center. Israel claims all the city as its capital.
The city's fate was to have been determined in talks on a final peace deal, and the Palestinians say Israel is pre-empting the outcome of these negotiations.
After Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements this summer, Israel is expected to come under growing pressure from the international community to renew peace talks with the Palestinians.
Israel denies it is drawing a final border. It has portrayed the Jerusalem barrier - which will consist of 25-foot high concrete walls, fences and razor wire along and in the West Bank - as a temporary security measure, meant to keep out Palestinian suicide bombers.
Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered that construction of the Jerusalem segment be accelerated.
In its decision Sunday, the Cabinet said it sees "great importance in the immediate completion of the security fence in the Jerusalem area, in order to improve the level of personal security for the residents of Israel."
During four years of fighting, more than 100 Palestinian suicide bombers have crossed the unmarked and mostly unguarded cease-fire line between Israel and the West Bank to attack Israeli cities. In Jerusalem alone, 170 people have been killed in 22 suicide bombings. The last one there was in September 2004.
"We are not moving the fence for enjoyment or our pleasure," said Vice Premier Ehud Olmert, a former mayor of Jerusalem, "but because there are security concerns of the highest level."
The United States has said Israel can build the separation barrier to defend itself from militants, but it should minimize hardships for Palestinians. The Bush administration also has held that the barrier should not be built in such a way that it prejudices the outcome of a final peace deal. State Department officials were not available for comment Sunday.