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Israeli Court Halts Fence Construction

The Supreme Court suspends building of a section of the barrier that opponents say would wall in Palestinian villagers.

March 01, 2004|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — The Israeli Supreme Court ordered a temporary halt Sunday to construction of a section of the barrier that Israel is building in the West Bank after opponents argued that it would encircle thousands of Palestinians who live in a group of villages outside Jerusalem.

After issuing its order, the court said it would hear petitions filed by eight Palestinian villages next week before ruling whether construction could continue.

The village of Biddo and surrounding areas have been the scene of recent clashes between protesters and Israeli troops. Two demonstrators were killed last week after Israeli troops opened fire on rock-throwers protesting the barrier.

Palestinians say the barrier would enclose their villages, separating them from larger centers, such as Jerusalem and Ramallah.

The barrier "will surround these village on all sides, meaning that these villages will become an enclave," said Mohammed Dahleh, an attorney for the villagers. "This is illegal. You cannot overnight convert people from free people in their homeland to prisoners."

Dahleh said the petition, filed Thursday, was joined by some residents of a neighboring Israeli community who also opposed the barrier's route.

A spokesman for Israel's Justice Ministry, Jacob Galanti, downplayed the ruling, saying it was "a temporary step that gives the court time to discuss the matter and gives the Palestinians who approached the court a chance to have a hearing."

Israel says the 452-mile barrier it is building -- an amalgam of chain-link fences, concrete walls, trenches and patrol roads -- is needed to keep suicide bombers from entering Israel to carry out attacks on civilians. Palestinians say it will cut off thousands of West Bank residents from their fields and amounts to Israel seizing land on which they hope to build a state.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz lashed out at the court injunction, saying that such delays would give militants more time to plan and carry out attacks.

The high court is already weighing a challenge to the entire barrier that was lodged by human rights groups. Israel has said it was considering ways to shorten the route of the barrier to reduce hardships on Palestinians but so far has begun dismantling only one five-mile section in the northern West Bank.

The International Court of Justice in The Hague held hearings last week on the legality of the barrier. The Palestinians argued their case, and were joined by 12 other countries and international organizations. Israel did not appear, saying the court had no jurisdiction to rule on the matter. Israel contends that the issue belongs on the negotiating table.

In other developments Sunday, two Palestinians were shot dead by Israeli soldiers in the Balata refugee camp in Nablus. Both were activists of Fatah, a movement headed by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

One of the men, Mohammed Owei, was killed during a shootout with soldiers Sunday morning. A few hours later, the second man, Riad Abu Shalal, was killed in a clash during Owei's funeral.

Also Sunday, Israeli police closed the crossing between the Gaza Strip and Israel and remained on alert after threats by Palestinian militants to avenge an Israeli airstrike Saturday that killed three members of the Islamic Jihad militant group.

The men, including the group's military leader for the northern Gaza Strip, were killed and about 10 bystanders were wounded when an Israeli helicopter fired missiles at their car.

On Sunday, Israeli police said they detained three Palestinian boys -- ages 13, 14 and 15 -- who told investigators that they were sent by a militant group to carry out a shooting on Israeli civilians in the northern city of Afula.

The boys were arrested at a West Bank checkpoint on Thursday after officers discovered that they were carrying homemade handguns. The youths told investigators they had been recruited by Islamic Jihad, which has claimed responsibility for dozens of attacks during the 41-month-old Palestinian uprising.

Police spokesman Gil Kleiman said one of the boys, who come from the village of Tubas in the northern West Bank, had been to Afula to look for targets. The shooting attack was to take place at the main bus station, Kleiman said.

The father of one of the boys expressed anger that his 13-year-old son might have been recruited for such a mission.

"This is a criminal act if there is somebody behind it, to send boys his age to do such a horrible thing," Mohammed Abu Muhsen said.

He said the boy didn't come home from school Thursday. When the parents went looking for him that evening, they learned through Palestinian police that he was being held by Israeli authorities.

The next day, a schoolmate brought the parents a letter in the son's handwriting that said he had been recruited by a separate militant group -- the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which is linked to the Fatah movement -- and was planning to engage in a shootout with Israeli soldiers to protest the barrier.

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