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Analysis: Controversy Over the Security Barrier in the West Bank

All Things Considered: June 30, 2004

Israeli Court Rules that Security Barrier Must Alter Course


The Israeli Supreme Court is forcing a change in Israel's project to build a security wall in the West Bank. Israel considers the barrier an essential means of protecting Israelis against Palestinian suicide bombers. Today, the court ruled nearly 20 miles of the barrier must be rerouted to reduce hardships to the surrounding Palestinian population. Israel's Defense Ministry says it will comply with the ruling. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

PETER KENYON reporting:

The area at issue in this case is a 24-mile stretch of the barrier north and west of Jerusalem, amid Palestinian villages such as Beit Surik and Bidu. Eight villages sued the state over the barrier's route, and they were joined by residents of Israeli towns in the area as well. Upon hearing that the court had ordered the barrier's route changed, Beit Surik farmer Tariq Alsheikh called it the first hopeful sign since the barrier began going up.

Mr. TARIQ ALSHEIKH (Farmer): This will give us a real hope that this may be changed or maybe stopped in the future.

KENYON: Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that the barrier, a network of fences, roads, walls and ditches, would cause severe hardships for tens of thousands of Palestinians. The suit further argued that the barrier was a political, not a security measure. Many Palestinians believe the barrier is a land grab, a de facto annexation of more territory to the state of Israel.

In response, lawyers for the Israeli army argued that the 900 Israelis killed since the latest Palestinian uprising began in 2000 more than justified the construction of the barrier on security grounds. They added that changing the route would diminish the security value of the barrier. The justices said the plaintiffs failed to make their case that the barrier is political. They accepted the Israeli argument that it may appropriate West Bank land for national security reasons. But the court also said the military planners are bound to balance the security needs against the hardships caused to the local populace, and in this case they'd failed to do so.

Mohammed Dahle, an attorney for the Palestinian villagers, called it a landmark case.

Mr. MOHAMMED DAHLE (Attorney): The Supreme Court basically accepted our arguments that if Israel wants to build a wall it can build a wall in a way that it does not infringe upon basic rights of Palestinians in an inproportionate manner. This decision is a precedent and it will have ramifications on all other petitions that are pending before the Supreme Court now.

KENYON: Today's ruling comes 10 days before the International Court of Justice in The Hague is due to issue an opinion on the legality of the entire barrier. Palestinians are hoping for a clear decision that the barrier violates international law. But Israel has already demonstrated its displeasure with the case, failing to appear for oral arguments. It's not clear The Hague ruling will have any effect on Israel's actions. But Israeli high court decisions are another matter, and Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Jonathan Peled said the government will comply.

Mr. JONATHAN PELED (Spokesperson, Israeli Foreign Ministry): A balance has to be struck between on the one hand the security demands and the humanitarian means on the other side. And the government of Israel will take this into serious consideration.

KENYON: A stack of further petitions against various other sections of the barrier is waiting in the wings, and both sides will be honing their arguments in light of today's ruling. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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