Change Ordered in West Bank Barrier

The Associated Press
Tuesday, September 4, 2007; 3:26 PM

BILIN, West Bank -- The Israeli Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the government to re-route a section of its West Bank separation barrier, a defeat for the state after a 2 1/2-year legal battle that turned this village into a flashpoint of opposition to the contentious structure.

Protesters gather every Friday in Bilin to protest the barrier that cuts villagers off from their fields, and symbolically to oppose the whole project. Dozens of demonstrators _ Israelis, Palestinians and foreigners _ have been wounded in the weekly clashes with Israeli forces.

After the ruling was announced, Palestinian villagers poured out of homes and schools and headed toward the fence, where several Israeli army jeeps gathered. "They demolished the Berlin wall, we want to demolish the Bilin wall," they chanted. Men waving Palestinian flags burst into a traditional Arab dance and shouted, "Soldiers, go home."

Also Tuesday, a senior Israeli official called for cutting off water, electricity and fuel to the Gaza Strip because of daily rocket barrages, and the Defense Ministry declared a state of emergency in Israeli communities near Gaza, a step sometimes taken before a military operation. The Israeli Security Cabinet will meet Wednesday to discuss the issue, officials said.

The developments came as Tony Blair began his first working visit in his new role as representative of the "Quartet" of Middle East mediators. The former British prime minister scheduled meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and was expected to stay about 10 days. He will report this month to the Quartet, which is comprised of the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the U.N.

Blair's mandate is limited to improving daily living conditions and government in the Palestinian areas, though many regional players believe he could play a pivotal role in wider peacemaking.

The West Bank barrier _ a combination of concrete walls, fences, trenches and patrol roads _ has sparked clashes since its construction began at the height of Palestinian-Israeli violence in 2002. Less than two-thirds of it has been completed.

Dozens of court cases like the Bilin appeal have held up construction or forced re-routing of completed sections. The high court usually rules in favor of easing hardships caused to Palestinians and moving the route closer to the "Green Line," the cease-fire line at the end of the 1948-49 war that followed Israel's creation.

The barrier is symbolic to both sides.

For Israel, it means cutting off the West Bank after seven years of conflict, during which dozens of suicide bombers walked across the line and blew themselves up in Israeli cities. It also marks the end of a nationalist dream to include the West Bank in Israel.

For Palestinians, the barrier represents an Israeli land grab, since its route incorporates about 8 percent of the territory on the Israeli side _ though rulings like Tuesday's over Bilin have been steadily reducing that figure. Also, the barrier spells the end of freedom of movement of Palestinians in and out of Israel. Many Palestinians call it the "apartheid wall."

The Israeli government argued the original route was necessary to protect residents of the nearby Jewish settlement of Modiin Illit, but the court rejected that.

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