The Israeli Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a contentious section of the barrier being built by Israel in the West Bank violates the rights of thousands of Palestinian residents by separating them from their farmland in "a veritable chokehold, which will severely stifle daily life."
A 34-page ruling issued by a three-judge panel of the court found that a partially completed portion of the route "established for the security fence -- which separates the local inhabitants from their agricultural lands -- injures the local inhabitants in a severe and acute way, while violating their rights under humanitarian international law."
Building the barrier along a route that would separate thousands of farmers from their olive groves and other lands "severely violates their right of property and their freedom of movement," said the justices, who concluded, "The difficult reality of life from which they have suffered will only become more severe."
The Israeli military, which chose the barrier's route and is overseeing its construction, said in a statement that it would shift the path of an 18-mile section to meet the court's demands.
The high court ordered changes in only a small fraction of the planned 450-mile system of fences, walls, concertina wire and patrol roads, and it did not suggest a new route or set timelines for the changes. "The military commander must determine an alternative which will provide a fitting, if not ideal, solution for the security considerations," the ruling stated.
But Israeli legal analysts said the court's first major ruling on the barrier was likely to have far-reaching implications for the project, which the Israeli government has said is necessary to keep Palestinian suicide bombers from entering Israel. More than 20 other cases contesting the barrier's route are pending before the high court, according to court officials and attorneys.
"This is a very courageous decision and an important precedent in the struggle against the separation fence," said Mohammed Dahla, the attorney representing the village council of Beit Surik, the Palestinian community that took the case to the high court. "There is no doubt this will have an impact on the route of the separation fence in all parts that are planned to be built."
The ruling covers nearly two miles of wall and fence that have already been built, Dahla said, and the decision indicates the military will be required to rip down those parts of the project.
The court issued its ruling nine days before the International Court of Justice in The Hague is scheduled to address broader issues associated with the barrier project. The court will respond to Palestinian and U.N. requests for an opinion on whether construction of the barrier violates international law and the Geneva Conventions.
Israeli troops have killed three protesters during skirmishes along the section of the fence covered by today's ruling, which snakes around Palestinian villages in a rugged area about 10 miles northwest of Jerusalem.
In a statement issued after the ruling was announced, the Defense Ministry said: "The defense establishment respects the judgment of the Supreme Court concerning those sections of the security fence that require replanning. The replanning of these sections will be based on . . . the proper balance between security and humanitarian considerations."
The ministry statement defended the project, saying that Israel "will continue to build the security fence that has already proven its worthiness" in saving lives.
The ruling drew denunciations from some Israeli politicians and officials of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
The settlement of Givat Zeev, which is in the area affected by the ruling, "was shocked by the decision of the Supreme Court," said Amos Tertman, its mayor. "It's common knowledge this fence prevents terror attacks. What is at stake is security, not property rights."
While the decision prompted skepticism among some Palestinian residents who questioned whether the military would adhere to the court's demands, it brought Fatima Abu Eid to tears during a telephone conversation.
"This is the happiest day of my life," said Abu Eid, 60, whose olive trees and vineyard were destroyed to make way for the barrier and whose home would have been cut off from the nearby village of Biddu. "The last four months were awful -- we were living practically under the rubble and no one cared about us."
"This is one of the most important decisions the Supreme Court has made in regards to the protection of the Palestinian populations in the territories," said Aeyal Gross, professor of constitutional and international law at Tel Aviv University. "If the government ignores the message that was given by the Supreme Court today, there will be more petitions."
The court said construction of the barrier, including the expropriation of Palestinian land, for security reasons is "within the authority of the military commander." It did not find that the barrier was being constructed for political reasons, as Palestinians have alleged. But the justices repeatedly admonished the Israeli military for failing to adhere to both domestic and international laws requiring it to "take the needs of the local population into account."
The justices also criticized Israel for failing to fulfill its promises to compensate farmers whose land was confiscated.
Researcher Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.