Israel plans to start extending its West Bank separation barrier around its largest settlement bloc by May 31 - construction that would in effect expand Jerusalem's boundaries and cut off Palestinians from the city they seek as a future capital, government and security officials said.
Three Jewish extremists, meanwhile, were questioned on suspicion they planned to fire a missile into the Al Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third-holiest shrine, in hopes of disrupting Israel's planned Gaza withdrawal, police said Monday. The suspects were arrested before they could carry out any part of their plan, police said.
They have since been released, and Israel's Justice Ministry said no charges would be filed because of insufficient evidence. Jerusalem police said the suspects had tried to buy an anti-tank missile and had searched for the best position from which to launch it.
Their attorney accused the security forces of entrapment.
Israeli security officials have repeatedly warned that extremists could either target the mosque compound or try to assassinate Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in a desperate bid to halt the pullback. An attack on the Jerusalem shrine would trigger worldwide Muslim protests.
In a related development, military police officials said the theft of missiles and other arms from military arsenals has increased in recent months.
In protests Monday, settlers and sympathizers tied up traffic on main roads across the country during evening rush hour, burning tires on highways and lying down to block cars. Police arrested more than 30 people in Jerusalem alone, Israel Radio said.
The new segment of the separation barrier would put the Maaleh Adumim settlement, with more than 30,000 residents, on the ``Israeli'' side of the barrier. Israel's Cabinet approved the Maaleh Adumim loop in February but did not announce a date for the start of construction.
The section around Maaleh Adumim is to be built before Israel withdraws from the Gaza Strip this summer. International pressure to resume Mideast peace talks is expected to intensify after the pullout. Completing the barrier around Jerusalem would establish facts on the ground regarding the fate of the city - a key issue in final settlement negotiations.
Israeli officials declined to comment publicly on the construction start, which also was reported in the Maariv daily newspaper. A senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, told The Associated Press that ``they've reached the point where they are constructing now in that particular area.''
``They are continuing to build around Jerusalem in those places where there is no litigation or pending Supreme Court injunction,'' he said, referring to legal challenges to the barrier's route.
Israel already is building sections of the planned 425-mile barrier elsewhere on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Once the barrier rings the entire city, it would cut off eastern Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as their future capital, from its West Bank hinterland.
The Haaretz daily reported on its Web site that Israel's Supreme Court has lifted the temporary injunctions it issued two months ago against building the barrier near Ariel, another major West Bank settlement bloc.
The army will be allowed to resume construction until June, when the court panel will be expanded to nine judges from three to review Palestinian petitions against the barrier route near Ariel, the report said. Israel's state prosecutor asked 10 days ago to have the injunctions lifted, Haaretz said.
Israel says the wall is necessary to keep out suicide bombers and other attackers who slip into Israel from the West Bank. Palestinians say the barrier is a thinly veiled land grab because it dips into the West Bank in some areas.
Asked to comment on the construction of the Maaleh Adumim portion of the barrier, U.S. Embassy spokesman Paul Patin said: ``Our position on the fence hasn't changed. We accept Israel's right to do what is necessary to defend its citizens. But to the extent that it encroaches on disputed territory, it concerns us.''
Israel also is moving ahead with plans to build 3,650 housing units between Maaleh Adumim and Jerusalem.
Senior Palestinian officials were not immediately available for comment.
In Tokyo, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi pledged $100 million in aid to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and vowed that Tokyo would play an active role in the Middle East peace process. Koizumi said Japan would be happy to host a summit between Abbas and Sharon.
Monday May 16, 2005 7:01 PM By AMY TEIBELAssociated Press Writer JERUSALEM