Israel to reroute barrier

A ruling by Israel's Supreme Court Wednesday said parts of the West Bank fence were illegal.

A landmark ruling by Israel's Supreme Court ordering the rerouting of parts of the West Bank separation barrier is evoking anger on the Israeli right but has prompted congratulations between Palestinians and Israeli community activists who joined to score the legal victory.

The court decision, 10 days in advance of an expected nonbinding decision on the barrier by the International Court of Justice in The Hague, is expected to have far-reaching implications. The ruling negates the army's route for 18 miles of the fence northwest of Jerusalem and is expected to serve as a precedent for moving other parts of the 425-mile barrier route - one-fourth of which has been completed - closer to the old Green Line border that separated Israel from the West Bank until 1967. It would thereby reduce, but not halt, the barrier's penetration into the occupied territory.

Beyond its impact on the ground, the decision is seen, at least by left-wing Israelis and leaders of the affected Palestinian villages, as a rare victory for Arab-Jewish cooperation in an environment that has been poisoned by nearly four years of bloodletting since the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising.

"I have told my Israeli friends, 'Congratulations for you and congratulations for us.' This is good for both sides," says Mohammed Kandil, mayor of Beit Surik, one of the West Bank villages that appealed against the barrier route.

Israel says the barrier is needed to block suicide bombers, dozens of whom have entered Israel from the West Bank, blowing apart buses and cafes and taking the lives of hundreds of civilians. While the Defense Ministry said it would abide by the court's decision, Health Minister Dan Naveh says he will attempt to reverse it through what he termed "emergency legislation."

"Preventing the murder of women and children in Israel is, in my eyes, much more important than the harm done to the Palestinian population's quality of life," he told Israel Radio.

Israeli security officials say the completed portion of the barrier in the northern West Bank has substantially reduced suicide attacks into northern Israel, and has driven bombers south to the Jerusalem area where the barrier is not yet complete. And a poll conducted last month by Tel Aviv University shows that 80 percent of Israelis support the barrier.

The court upheld Israel's right to build the barrier and said it is doing so for security, not political, reasons. But it said that military planners of the barrier, which snakes as much as 15 miles beyond the Green Line at its deepest penetration, had failed to meet a legal requirement to "balance between security needs and the rights and interests of the local population."

"Alongside the important security considerations, it must be considered that the fence harms the lives of 35,000 local residents," an official summary of the decision says. The court struck down six army land-confiscation orders in Beit Surik and other villages, and upheld one.

"It was very important to us that there were Jews who understood the damage being done to Beit Surik," says Mr. Kandil, recalling visits by residents from the upscale neighboring suburb of Mevasseret Zion, who petitioned the court on behalf of the village. He says the route as planned would have separated the village from its olive and fig trees and grape vines.

"I would have been happier if the court canceled the fence entirely, but the decision ... will give us back some income and work," he says.

Hagai Amnon-Snir, organizer of the 30 residents of Mevasseret Zion who signed the court petition, was jubilant. "The Supreme Court has understood that the route was bad for Mevasseret Zion also, and that to choke our neighbors will choke them and us together. There have been no lethal terror attacks from Beit Surik during the last 20 years, and the fence route would simply have destroyed the coexistence."

In an innovative protest against the barrier, Mr. Amnon-Snir recently helped organize a joint kite event for the two communities in which 50 children in Mevasseret Zion and 100 in Beit Surik flew kites at the same time. "Our message was that we feel safe between our communities," he says.

At the request of residents of Mevasseret Zion, the Israeli Council for Peace and Security (ICPS), a grouping of former senior army officers, submitted to the court an opinion that the route of the fence harms Israeli security. The council said that separating Palestinians from their fields and building the fence up against Palestinian houses would make it easier to shoot from inside villages at military patrols. "It makes the existence of the residents harder and will increase their bitterness and anger, something which in itself represents a severe security danger," the ICPS wrote.

Lawyer Mohammed Dahle, who represented Beit Surik, said: "It was very important that Israelis came to the court and said, 'You are building the wall in our name, and this endangers our security.' It gave the court the courage to say there is no national consensus on the route."

Amnon-Snir's wife, Iris Meiri-Snir, recalls a visit she made to Beit Surik recently with her 10-year-old son, Ramon, and 6-year-old daughter, Kedem.

"My children do not speak any Arabic, but with their hands and some English they were able to play together with the Beit Surik kids while I spoke with the adults about the fence," she says. "We felt the warmth of the villagers about what we were doing. They understood that we were on their side and that we felt for them."

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