By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 5, 2007
GAZA CITY, Sept. 4 -- Israel's high court ordered the military Tuesday to reroute the separation barrier near the West Bank village of Bilin, the scene of sometimes rowdy weekly demonstrations against the project that Israeli and Palestinian activists say helped bring about their rare legal victory.
The Israeli military has said the path of the 456-mile barrier was determined by security considerations, and it attributes a sharp reduction in suicide bombings in Israel in recent years to the $2.5 billion construction project.
The barrier's opponents say it is primarily an Israeli tool to annex Palestinian land in the absence of a peace agreement. The route, as drawn, sweeps 10 percent of the West Bank onto the Israeli side of the barrier, including more than half of Bilin's land.
The Jewish settlement of Modiin Illit has been planning to build a new neighborhood on some of the Bilin land that is on the Israeli side of the barrier. But the three-justice panel ruled that the 24-foot-high wall that splits Bilin, which is set among olive groves northwest of Jerusalem, should follow a course that takes less of its land.
"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 in the unanimous decision.
The opinion, one of only a handful that have gone against Israel's military in more than 100 cases challenging the barrier, noted that "this will require destroying the existing fence in certain places and building a new one." It gives Israel's government a "reasonable period of time" to comply.
The village of roughly 1,700 residents, most of whom rely on their farmland to make a living, has been the scene of regular Friday demonstrations. The protests draw Israelis, Palestinians and international opponents of the barrier and often end in tear gas-shrouded clashes with Israeli police and soldiers.
"The fact the justices even agreed to hear this case is attributable to the struggle," said Jonathan Pollak, an organizer with the group Anarchists Against the Wall. "It's a great political victory for the popular movement. When people unite, they have power over Israeli institutions, whether it's the army or the courts."
But Pollak said the proposed alternative routes for the wall near Bilin all remain within the West Bank rather than along the boundary with Israel that existed before the 1967 Middle East war.
A 2004 advisory ruling by the International Court of Justice at The Hague declared the barrier illegal because it did not follow that prewar boundary, a decision Israeli officials said ignored the Jewish state's security concerns.
"This is not over," Pollak said. "It will take a long time for the wall to be dismantled."
Meanwhile, Israeli political leaders proposed increasingly harsh measures Tuesday to stop steady rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. On Monday, seven rockets landed in the Israeli town of Sderot on the second day of the school year. Although no one was injured, one rocket landed close to a day-care center, terrifying more than a dozen children and their parents.
The group that asserted responsibility, the Islamic Jihad, declared that the attack was a reprisal for the death last week of three Palestinian cousins, ages 10 to 12 , in the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun. The children were playing tag near an Islamic Jihad rocket launcher when an Israeli airstrike killed them. The Israeli military later characterized the attack as a mistake.
Several Israeli cabinet ministers said that until the rocket fire stops, Israel should cut off water, electricity and fuel deliveries to the strip, whose 1.4 million residents depend on imports for their most basic needs. Israeli military officials said about 100 of the highly inaccurate rockets landed inside Israel in August, damaging some homes and businesses and causing mostly minor injuries.
Binyamin Netanyahu, head of the opposition Likud Party, urged Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to send the army into Gaza to secure the rocket-launching areas. Netanyahu, a former premier interested in returning to the post, blamed Olmert for supporting Israel's 2005 Gaza withdrawal, a decision made by then-Likud prime minister Ariel Sharon.
The radical Islamic movement Hamas, which does not recognize Israel's right to exist, holds power in Gaza after defeating forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in June. But Hamas has rarely challenged the Islamic Jihad over the rocket fire. Hamas's armed wing also fires rockets periodically, often after its gunmen are killed in Israeli airstrikes.
"We are just reacting to Israeli violence," said Ahmed Yousef, a senior adviser to deposed prime minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas. "This is just self-defense."