Israeli Court Orders Changes to Barrier in West Bank

By JOSEPH BERGER

The New York Times

June 30, 2004

JERUSALEM, June 30 Israel's Supreme Court ruled today that the barrier the Army is building to wall off residents from terror attacks must take into account the needs of Palestinian farmers in the West Bank, and the Army said it would comply with the ruling by changing the route of the structure.

The decision by the three-judge court recognized that Israel had a legitimate security rationale for building a fence or wall and could expropriate plots of land in the West Bank.

But it added the Army high command had a legal duty to balance security considerations with humanitarian ones. The barrier's current path, the court ruled, requires seizing tens of thousands of acres of land and would generally burden the entire way of life in the villages of the petitioners.

In a statement, Israel's Ministry of Defense said it would abide by the ruling and re-draw the proposed route of the barrier to comply with the principles set by the Supreme Court.

Some farm land will still be taken, but the petitioners believe it will be a lot less than the original route, which was designed to create enough distance to stop potential gunfire from the village or the approach of a suicide bomber.

The court ruled that the barrier, intended to protect residents from terror attacks, must take into account the needs of Palestinians like the farmers in the hilltop village of Beit Surik, who would have lost much of the terraced land on which they grow olives, grapes and figs.

The decision sets a precedent for how Israel can go about completing its fence, which is one-quarter built and, when complete, would run for 437 miles from the northern West Bank, wrap around some settlements like Ariel quite deep in the West Bank and stretch down to the southern rim of the West Bank.

In most areas, the barrier consists of an electronic fence with coils of razor wire, adjoining trenches and guard towers, but some sections include 20-foot-high concrete walls.

The decision set off measured satisfaction in the scrappy village of Beit Surik, and in the adjoining Israel town of Mevasseret Zion, whose Israeli residents had joined the Palestinians in arguing that a fence rising between them would increase animosity and thereby lessen the sense of safety.

Just last week, children from the two towns joined together to fly kites as sign of the cooperative economic relationship between them that would be damaged by the construction of too invasive a fence.

"We looked at the wall as a catastrophe for our village because we have high unemployment and if some people get income it was the result of farming," said the mayor, Mohammed Kandil, in an interview in his office in Beit Surik.

He said that the village before 1948 originally had 52,000 acres of land that was cut in half by wars and occupation. The fence would have separated the farmers from all but 4,000 acres of land, requiring them to go through gates or checkpoints to tend their fields and orchards.

"They want to confiscate and steal the land," the mayor said. "Security is a pretext."

Israel says that the barrier is strictly a security measure, intended to prevent Palestinian suicide bombings and other attacks, and that it could be moved or torn down at a later date. Palestinians denounce it as a land confiscation that would greatly disrupt the lives of many Palestinians and complicate efforts to establish a Palestinian state.

The Bush administration has said that it does not object to the barrier in principle, but believes that it should be on, or very close to, the borders Israel had before the 1967 war in which Israel captured the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.