By ISABEL KERSHNER, New York Times, Sept. 5, 2007
JERUSALEM, Sept. 4 — In its latest decision overruling Israel’s influential security establishment, the High Court of Justice here on Tuesday ordered the government to reroute a section of its separation barrier that had split a West Bank village from much of its farmland.
Although this is not the first time that Israel’s High Court has ruled in the Palestinians’ favor in a case about the barrier, this case has taken on a special significance as a symbol of popular resistance to construction of the barrier. In the past two and a half years, residents of the village, Bilin, and a band of Israeli far-leftists and foreign supporters have held weekly demonstrations in the fields and groves along the barrier route, often ending in confrontations with Israeli forces.
The panel of three judges ruled unanimously that a mile-long section of the barrier should be redrawn and rebuilt in a “reasonable period of time.” Chief Justice Dorit Beinish wrote in the ruling, “We were not convinced that it is necessary for security-military reasons to retain the current route that passes on Bilin’s lands.”
The Defense Ministry, which oversees the planning and construction of the barrier, said it would “study the ruling and respect it.”
Israel began building the barrier on the West Bank in 2002, with the stated purpose of preventing Palestinian suicide bombers from reaching Israeli population centers. Made mostly of chain-link fence, the barrier includes sections of tall concrete wall. Much of the barrier runs through West Bank land, sometimes protruding for several miles to encompass a Jewish settlement.
The military planners say the 425-mile route is based purely on security considerations, but the Palestinians dispute that, accusing Israel of a land grab. In 2004, the International Court of Justice in The Hague issued a nonbinding ruling that construction of the barrier across the 1967 boundary, in West Bank territory, violated international law. Israel rejected the ruling, but in the years since it has altered several segments of the barrier route after rulings by its own courts.
About two years ago, the local council leader of Bilin, Ahmed Issa Abdullah Yassin, hired a prominent Israeli human rights lawyer, Michael Sfard, to petition the High Court on his behalf. Mr. Sfard said the fence put about 500 acres of the village’s agricultural lands on the side under full Israeli control. The villagers had only limited access, through a gate in the fence which the Israeli Army opened and closed.
The government contended that the current barrier route was necessary to protect the residents of a nearby Jewish settlement, Modiin Illit. But the barrier lies more than a mile east of the last houses of the settlement, the court ruling said; its route had taken the planned expansion of the settlement into account, encompassing an area where a new Jewish neighborhood, Mattityahu East B, was meant to go up.
While all Jewish settlement in the West Bank, including expansion, is viewed as illegal by most of the world, Israel holds that the West Bank is disputed territory and that building there is legal. But even in Israel, some earlier construction in the Mattityahu East area is deemed problematic, because it was done without the required building permits.
The ruling stipulates that in rerouting the Bilin section of the barrier, Israeli plans for Mattityahu East B should not be a consideration, meaning that the area is likely to end up on the villagers’ side. In the assessment of Mr. Sfard, the lawyer, the ruling will translate into the return of at least 250 acres of farmland to the villagers’ side.
“Today it becomes completely clear that the route was determined by nonsecurity considerations with the goal of expanding the settlement of Modiin Illit as much as possible,” Mr. Sfard told Israel Radio. “The High Court invalidated this criterion.”
Bilin, with about 1,700 residents, had declared its campaign against the barrier one of nonviolent resistance, but the weekly demonstrations often ended with protesters throwing stones and Israeli forces firing tear gas and rubber bullets. Each side said the other had provoked it.
As news of the court ruling reached Bilin, jubilant villagers headed toward the fence.
“We went to court, hired the best lawyers in Israel, and we won,” Abdullah Abu Rahma, one of the leaders of the weekly protests, told The Associated Press.
Mr. Yassin, the council leader, hailed the ruling as a “victory.”
Jonathan Pollack, of Anarchists Against the Wall, an Israeli group that participated in the protests, said the decision “proved that the people, when they choose to act, have the power over Israeli institutions.”
The High Court has often avoided domestically contentious issues, like the legality of the settlements, but when it comes to the barrier, which enjoys broad support among the Israeli public, it has often gone against the defense establishment.
In a landmark judgment in 2004, a week before The Hague ruling was announced, the High Court ordered the state to bring a 25-mile section of the barrier in the West Bank hills northeast of Jerusalem closer to the 1967 boundary, on grounds that the original route caused disproportionate harm to the rights of Palestinian villagers in the area.
But the Israeli court has upheld the principle of building the barrier in West Bank territory given convincing security reasons, and rules on a case-by-case basis. Last Wednesday, the High Court rejected a petition by Palestinian villagers against the barrier route near the Alfei Menashe Jewish settlement. The Palestinians had wanted the barrier moved closer to the 1967 boundary, and away from their homes.
The same day, the court rejected a petition by Alfei Menashe residents who had wanted the barrier moved farther from their settlement, into the West Bank land.