Change Ordered in West Bank Barrier

By MOHAMMED DARAGHMEH
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.

"We were not convinced that it is necessary for security-military reasons to retain the current route that passes on Bilin's lands," Chief Justice Dorit Beinish wrote. Bilin is 6 miles west of Ramallah, just inside the West Bank.

The judges ordered the government to come up with a new route in a "reasonable period of time."

The Israeli Defense Ministry, which has overseen construction of the barrier, said in a statement that it would "study the ruling and respect it."

Also Tuesday, Israel was considering how to respond to daily rocket barrages from Gaza that have disrupted life in towns and villages in southern Israel. A rocket exploded next to a nursery school on Monday.

Vice Premier Haim Ramon called for cutting off vital supplies to Gaza as punishment for the green light Hamas has given Islamic Jihad and other militant groups to carry out the attacks.

"We won't continue to supply oxygen (to Gaza) in the form of electricity, fuel and water when they are trying to kill our children," Ramon told Army Radio.

Cutoffs would disrupt life in Gaza, but would also likely draw international condemnation.

At a West Bank news conference, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas denounced the rocket attacks "because these actions harm peace and the peace process." Abbas and his Fatah movement are in a power struggle with Hamas, which overran the Gaza Strip in June.

In Gaza, the Hamas rulers on Tuesday issued a ban on public prayers _ aimed at stopping Fatah demonstrations after prayers on Friday, the Muslim Sabbath.

Israel let more than 150 Palestinians stranded in Gaza cross through Israeli territory Tuesday to reach jobs and studies in Egypt and other countries. It was the largest group to be allowed out since Israel sealed Gaza's borders in response to the Hamas takeover.

In the West Bank, Israeli forces shot an 8-year-old Palestinian boy in the head with a rubber-coated bullet, seriously wounding him, Palestinian hospital officials said. The military said troops encountered rioters throwing rocks, and soldiers fired rubber-coated bullets in response.

© 2007 The Associated Press