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Israeli ruling reroutes wall

Security is paramount, not housing, the nation's high court says.

September 05, 2007|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — In a closely watched ruling, Israel's Supreme Court ordered the government Tuesday to reroute a milelong segment of its West Bank separation barrier, in effect restoring hundreds of acres of agricultural land that had been taken from a Palestinian village to give to Jewish settlers.

The decision set a precedent by rejecting the government's argument that the barrier's routing could be justified to protect homes in a settlement that were planned but not yet built.

Israel's Defense Ministry said it would "study the ruling and respect it."

The decision was the fourth of dozens heard by the court to uphold a Palestinian challenge to the planned 490-mile route of the barrier, a combination of electronic fences, concrete walls, patrol roads and trenches that is about two-thirds complete.

Legal experts said the precedent could affect at least one similar challenge now under litigation and serve as a lesson to commercial developers about the risks of seeking profit from seizures of West Bank land for settlements.

Beyond its legal and economic impact, the ruling is a political victory for Palestinians in the tug of war over territory they want for a future state.

Of scores of Palestinian communities cut off from their land by the barrier, none has resisted more conspicuously than Bilin, whose more than 2 1/2 years of unruly demonstrations and legal challenges preceded Tuesday's decision.

Hearing the news, more than 200 jubilant Bilin residents poured from their homes toward the fence, singing, dancing, honking car horns and waving Palestinian flags.

Instead of rocks, their weapon of choice in the weekly clashes, the villagers tossed candy at jeeploads of Israeli soldiers watching stone-faced from the other side.

Saeb Erekat, a veteran Palestinian Authority negotiator, issued a statement praising the "heroic struggle and steadfastness" of the villagers and demanding that Israel dismantle the entire barrier and end its occupation of the West Bank, which it captured in the 1967 Middle East War.

"It is time to create bridges, not walls," said Erekat, who is involved in a U.S.-initiated effort to revive negotiations over the obstacles to a peace accord -- including the status of Jewish settlements, conflicting claims over Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

Israel says completed sections of the barrier, which it started building in 2002 with Palestinian labor, have proved an effective way to prevent Palestinian suicide bombers from entering Israel from the West Bank.

But Palestinian officials say Israel has used the barrier to draw new borders on its own. The current route would enclose about 8% of the West Bank's land on the Israeli side.

Since 2004 the Supreme Court has imposed itself as an arbiter of disputes over the barrier, seeking to balance Israel's security needs with Palestinians' demands to keep their communities intact and free of hardship.

The case decided Tuesday was notable because of the Palestinians' contention that Israeli commercial interests, not security concerns, determined the barrier's routing.

Bilin's village council went to court after the fence's construction separated its 1,700 residents from many of their olive and almond trees, vineyards and grazing land.

In the court's unanimous ruling, Chief Justice Dorit Beinish wrote that the fence's location was "highly prejudicial" to the villagers and had no justification on military or security grounds.

The only reason the barrier was routed through the village's 1,000 acres of land, the ruling said, was to incorporate 575 acres of it into Matityahu East, a planned extension of Modiin Illit, the West Bank's most populous Jewish settlement.

The settlement of 33,200 people, built in 1996 for ultra-Orthodox Jews, juts into Palestinian territory northwest of Ramallah, the West Bank headquarters of the Palestinian Authority.

How the settlement expanded onto the village's land is the subject of an Israeli criminal investigation.

The Israeli newspaper Ha-aretz has reported that an Israeli land dealer acquired large plots near the village from Palestinians who misrepresented themselves as the legal owners. Israeli officials then declared the property "state land" and leased it back to the dealer, who got authorities in Modiin Illit to issue building permits for the new neighborhood, the newspaper said.

The Supreme Court ordered housing construction there halted last year after Bilin's village council and Peace Now, an Israeli advocacy group, challenged the legality of the land acquisition. By then, 400 of Matityahu East's 3,000 planned apartments had been built and many of them occupied.

One of the two construction companies affected by the stoppage, Heftzibah, has since collapsed, leaving hundreds of Jewish families who had paid up to $100,000 for apartments empty-handed. The Israeli company's chief executive officer, who fled the country, was arrested in Italy last month after a monthlong manhunt.

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