Israeli workers started removing a section of the West Bank separation barrier yesterday, a day before the world court begins a hearing on the legality of the structure.
The move appears aimed at softening international criticism ahead of the legal proceedings, though Israel's Foreign Minister said the timing was purely coincidental.
Workers started taking down a stretch of the barrier -- about 8km of fencing, razor wire and trenches -- that has isolated the Palestinian town of Baka al-Sharkia from the rest of the West Bank for more than a year.
That section of fence is to be removed now that workers have completed a series of concrete walls and fences separating the town's western side from Israel, said Defense Ministry spokeswoman Rachel Niedak-Ashkenazi.
A gate will allow passage to a "sister" town, Baka al-Gharbia, just inside the boundary with Israel.
Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said that there was no connection between the decision to move this stretch of the fence and the hearing at the International Court of Justice in the Hague, Netherlands.
"It is coincidental, maybe it is not the best timing," Shalom told Israel Radio.
Israel has come under increasing pressure -- even domestic legal challenges -- to reroute the barrier, which dips deep into the West Bank in places.
But Shalom said that the international community would not be satisfied unless Israel moved the entire barrier to the 1967 borders and that would not happen.
"We will not build the fence along the 1967 border because then it will become a political fence and not a security fence," Shalom said, adding that there has been a steep drop in attacks in places where the fence has been built.
The complex of walls, fences, razor wire and watchtowers has become one of the most contentious issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel says the barrier is needed to stop suicide bombers and other attackers from entering Israeli towns and cities.
Palestinians are outraged because parts of the barrier that cut into the West Bank disrupt the lives of thousands. They also worry it will make it impossible to build an independent Palestinian state on the territory.
Construction of the barrier began more than a year ago and about a third of its eventual 740km is complete.
In later stages of the project, the barrier complex is to cut even deeper into the West Bank to wrap around Jewish settlements. That would separate thousands more Palestinians from their farmland, schools and jobs.
However, Shalom said that in the event of a future peace agreement with the Palestinians, Israel could move the fence closer to the 1967 border.
"We have lots of experience with fences that we have moved in the past," Shalom told the radio, pointing to previous peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan and the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000.
"And so, if in some situation we reach an agreement with the Palestinians, in which we agree with each other that there is a need to move the fence, we will obviously be willing and able to do so," Shalom said.
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