- The Washington Times - Friday, March 5, 2004

MEVASERET TSIYON, Israel — A group of residents from this Jerusalem suburb, in a rare display of solidarity, have joined forces with leaders from nearby Palestinian villages to protest the planned route of the West Bank separation barrier.

Some 200 Mevaseret residents signed a petition in the last two weeks warning that the path of the fence will stir militancy among otherwise peaceful neighbors by cutting them off from farmland, a critical source of income for thousands of Palestinian villagers nearby.

At a time when Israelis are clamoring for the government to hurry up with a barrier meant to protect them from Palestinian suicide bombing, critics of the Mevaseret fence have helped slow the project down.

Joining in a Supreme Court appeal against the fence route brought by eight Palestinian villages, including the neighboring town of Beit Surik, some 30 Mevaseret residents helped win a weeklong injunction on construction northwest of Jerusalem.

Instead of directing the fence through the property of Palestinians, the Mevaseret group wants the fence to hug the Green Line, the pre-1967 West Bank border that virtually runs through their back yards.

“What we’re afraid of is that these people, when they lose their last way to get food, will struggle violently,” said Hagai Agmon-Snir, a Mevaseret resident who petitioned the Supreme Court.

“There’s a sane answer: There should be a fence as close as possible to the Green Line. If the fence is nearer to us, we will be more secure.”

Even though the order could be reversed after discussions on the appeal resume tomorrow, the court’s request for the army to rethink the path of the fence reflects growing legal pressure both at home and abroad to redraw the route of the barrier.

A week ago, an international panel of judges at The Hague heard Palestinian arguments that Israel’s decision to build the fence deep into the West Bank violated international law.

“It’s the first time the Israelis joined Palestinians in a petition against the wall. This is having an affect on Israeli public opinion, and most important on the Supreme Court,” said Mohammed Dahla, a lawyer representing the Palestinian villages.

“These are people who are saying we are willing to sacrifice our landscape so the Palestinians can make a living. That’s very powerful,” he said.

Located on opposite ridges separated by a terraced valley of olive orchards, Mevaseret and Beit Surik developed a symbiotic relationship in the decades following Israel’s capture of the West Bank. Construction workers from Beit Surik literally laid the foundations in the building boom of the 1980s and 1990s that saw Mevaseret’s population expand beyond 20,000.

“We have been living 35 years as good neighbors. Everyone knows each other,” said Mohammed Abu Sufian, head of the Beit Surik village council. “There are many that come to our weddings, and we drink coffee together.”

Despite the three years of violence, a trickle of Palestinian workers persists. On most mornings, West Bank villagers can be seen plodding on dirt paths emerging from Palestinian olive orchards that extend up to the outskirts of Mevaseret.

Shai Dror, a landscape architect from Mevaseret, said he started the petition two weeks ago, after a Beit Surik resident showed him the copy of a map of the fence route that had been distributed to the villagers.

According to the map, the fence will sweep around the edge of Beit Surik, separating the town from its fields. Mr. Dror said the army should build the fence on the mountain ridge at the outskirts of Mevaseret, allowing the villagers access to their land.

“It’s not something that’s anonymous. We know the faces and the names. We’re talking about people — Yassin, Faraj and Walid,” Mr. Dror said.

Mevaseret critics of the initiative sympathize with the plight of their Palestinian neighbors, but worry that a fence on the outskirts of the suburbs would expose residents to sniper fire.

“These people are naive,” said Arie Shaman, deputy chair of the Mevaseret council, referring to the petition sponsors. “I identify with the suffering it’s going to cause to the people of Beit Surik, and I also recognize the closeness between the communities. But if the fence is near us, it will be easier to shoot into the houses.”

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