Israel's Supreme Court delivered a significant blow to the country's military establishment yesterday by ordering the West Bank separation barrier to be rerouted near a Palestinian village which has been the focus of two-and-a-half years of protests.
A three-judge panel led by Israel's Chief Justice, Dorit Beinish, unanimously rejected the state's defence of the route and ordered the government to come up with an alternative for a mile-long section of the barrier in a "reasonable period of time" to limit the harm to the Palestinian residents of Bili'in.
The residents of Bili'in believe the success of their petition to the court will mean the recovery of around 250 acres of mainly olive orchards which were to have been cut off from the village by the barrier to make way for what they had foreseen as a further planned expansion of the Jewish settlement of Modiin Illit on their land.
But the Supreme Court ruling – the fourth in three years to challenge the routeing of individual sectors of the not-yet-completed 490-mile barrier at points where it cuts into the West Bank – also has a symbolic significance because Bil'iin has long been the scene of weekly protests by residents as well as Israeli and international activists. The court refused to accept the argument that the current route was needed to protect the existing settlement.
The Chief Justice declared that the court had not been "convinced that it is necessary for security-military reasons to retain the current route that passes on Bili'in's lands". The Defence Ministry said it would study and respect the judgment, which was specific that the existing barrier would have to be destroyed in certain places and rebuilt elsewhere.
In Bili'in jubilant villagers poured out of their homes and schools and headed for the barrier – in this section a fence – and military jeeps gathered as some men brandishing Palestinian flags began to dance chanting: "They demolished the Berlin Wall, we want to demolish the 'Bilin' wall."
Abdullah Abu Rahma, one of the leading opponents of the barrier in the village who has been arrested three times during the weekly protests, said: "It is good. We are very happy and looking forward to implementation of the decision." He added: "We went to court, hired the best lawyers in Israel and we won."
Mr Abu Rahma said the ruling still meant that Bili'in had lost land to the settlement and vowed that the fight against the barrier would continue. "But it is still an achievement," he added. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, praised the "heroic struggle" of campaigners at Bili'in but said that despite "the symbolic victory" the route of the barrier still deviated from Israel's 1967 borders in conflict with international law and a July 2004 decision by the International Court of Justice.
Some anti-barrier campaigners have in the past criticised Israel's Supreme Court for not following the ICJ by challenging the principle of the route cutting at points into the West Bank. But Jonathan Pollak of the Israeli group Anarchists against the Wall claimed Chief Justice Beinish had made a "very rare comment" questioning how security-driven the routing of the barrier was.
As Tony Blair, the new international Middle East envoy, met the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, in Jerusalem last night, the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, denounced militant rocket attacks on southern Israel from Gaza, where Hamas has been in de facto control since June. "We condemn the launching of rockets from Gaza and other places because these actions harm peace and the peace process," he said.
His remarks came as Mr Olmert's cabinet ally Haim Ramon proposed imposing utility cuts on Gaza in retaliation for the rocket attacks. A rocket landed on a courtyard next to a crowded day-care nursery in the southern Israeli border town of Sderot on Monday. Mr Ramon, told Army Radio: "We won't continue to supply oxygen [to Gaza] in the form of electricity, fuel and water when they are trying to kill our children."