Israel's high court ordered the government Thursday to consider new routes for a section of the barrier it is building to separate Israel from the Palestinian population of the West Bank.

In the unanimous opinion, the court reaffirmed its earlier ruling that Israel's separation barrier is legal. The International Court of Justice at The Hague had declared the barrier illegal last year because its route cuts into the West Bank, territory envisioned as part of a future Palestinian state. That nonbinding opinion, Israel's high court reiterated Thursday, did not properly consider Israeli security interests.

The Israeli court gave the government "a reasonable period" of time to find an alternative route for a roughly eight-mile section of the barrier near the Jewish settlement of Alfei Menashe and five Palestinian villages. The area lies in the northern West Bank about three miles east of Israel's 1967 border.

Residents of the Palestinian villages had filed suit challenging the route, which placed the towns on the Israeli side of the barrier when that section of it was completed in August 2003. The court wrote that the route around the Palestinian villages, which cut off many residents from their farmland, "seriously damages the entire fabric of life."

Israel's government says the 457-mile separation barrier -- about half of which is either complete or under construction -- is being built for security reasons. A sharp decline in suicide attacks inside Israel has coincided with its construction. Palestinian officials argue that Israel is seeking to define its future border by building the barrier around key settlement blocs in the West Bank, complicating efforts to reach a final peace agreement.

-- Scott Wilson