- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 30, 2004

JERUSALEM — Israel’s Supreme Court, in a precedent-setting decision, ordered the government yesterday to change a large section of its West Bank separation barrier, saying the current route violates the human rights of the local Palestinian population.

The government said it would honor the ruling, which likely will affect other sections of the contentious wall.

The decision — the first major ruling on the barrier — signaled that the court would reject other parts of the fence that separate Palestinians from their lands, cut off villages from each other or prevent people from reaching population centers.

In the Gaza Strip, meanwhile, Israeli troops encircled the northern town of Beit Hanoun, tearing up roads in an ongoing offensive aimed at halting Palestinian rocket attacks. A Palestinian teenager was killed, Palestinian sources said.

The court said the changes in the wall’s route must be made, even at the risk of reducing Israeli security.

“Only a separation route based on the path of law will lead the state to the security so yearned for,” the court said in its ruling.

“The route … injures the local inhabitants in a severe and acute way while violating their rights under humanitarian and international law,” it said.

Israel says the barrier is needed to prevent suicide bombers and other attackers from reaching Israeli towns and cities. But the complex of fences, concrete walls, trenches and razor wire has severely disrupted the lives of thousands of Palestinians by separating them from jobs, schools and farmland.

About a quarter of the 425-mile barrier, which dips deep into the West Bank in some sections, has been completed.

Israel’s Defense Ministry — responsible for overseeing construction of the barrier — said it would reroute the disputed sections of the barrier “based on the principles set by the Supreme Court, namely the proper balance between security and humanitarian considerations.”

Yesterday’s case focused on a 25-mile stretch of the barrier northwest of Jerusalem, where 35,000 people live in eight villages. The fence would separate the villagers from 7,500 acres, most of it cultivated with tens of thousands of olive trees, fruit trees and other crops.

“To have the chief justice of the Supreme Court say you can’t put the Palestinians in prison … in the name of the security of Israel, that is really important. That is the least I can say,” said Mohammed Dahla, an attorney for the petitioners.

He said the court had ordered changes in about 20 miles of the stretch. Israel Radio said two miles of completed construction also would have to be dismantled.

The court also forced the government to return land that has been seized and compensate the Palestinians for their financial losses.

The court froze construction of the section near Jerusalem in late February, shortly after two protesters were killed in a stone-throwing clash with soldiers in the path of construction.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia played down yesterday’s ruling.

“The wall is an act of aggression whether it remains as is, or they introduce changes in its route. This wall should be knocked down as other walls in the world, like the Berlin Wall,” he said.

The Palestinians also have asked the World Court in The Hague to rule on the legality of the barrier. That court is expected to issue its advisory ruling next week.

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