In landmark ruling, high court says Israel must reroute its security fence

jerusalem | Security cannot come at any price, Israel has decided.

The High Court of Justice on Wednesday, June 30, ordered that a 20-mile section of the West Bank security barrier be rerouted to reduce the hardship caused to Palestinians on whose lands it will be built.

Israeli defense officials, insisting that the original route offered the best bulwark against terrorist infiltration, cried foul. But officials also hoped that the landmark ruling would offset Arab rancor at the vast project, which led to hearings at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

"The current routing would impede upon the entire way of life in traditional villages," the three-justice panel said, finding in favor of petitions lodged by Palestinians from northwest Jerusalem and their Israeli neighbors.

"Military commanders must consider alternatives," the judges ruled. "Even if they result in a lower level of security, they should bring a substantial — even if not complete — reduction in the harm done to the lives of the local inhabitants."

The Defense Ministry bowed to the order, though officials noted it would delay by as much as six months the completion of the fence, which is planned to stretch for 370 miles along the contours of Israel’s boundary with the West Bank and around Jewish settlement blocs.

"The rerouting of these sections will be based on the principles set by the High Court of Justice, namely the proper balance between security and humanitarian considerations," the ministry said in a statement.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was to convene a meeting of senior figures Thursday, July 1, to discuss the ruling. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, senior defense establishment figures, Justice Minister Yosef "Tommy" Lapid and Attorney General Menachem Mazuz were expected to participate, Ha’aretz reported.

The court froze construction in the disputed area in March, pending a final decision.

The petitioners argued that Palestinian humanitarian considerations were key, not contrary, to Israel’s interests, arguing that the plan to expropriate some 12,000 acres of West Bank land northwest of Jerusalem had risked driving more Palestinians toward violence.

"Looking out for the Palestinians is in itself essential for Israeli security," said Haggai Givon, a resident of the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion who went to court to stop the fence going up on farmland belonging to Palestinians in the neighboring village of Beit Furiq.

The two communities enjoy a relationship of coexistence largely unscathed by three-and-a-half years of the Palestinian intifada, but in recent months Beit Furiq had seen increasingly violent protests against the planned fence. Two Palestinian villagers have been shot dead by riot police.

"I say bravo to those people who went to the High Court for us," Beit Furiq resident Mohammed Kandil said. "Those people are decent human beings."

Jerusalem officials voiced fear that Wednesday’s ruling could prompt more petitions against other sections of the fence not yet constructed, further delaying a project Sharon has vowed to complete by September.

"We should pass an emergency law requiring that the fence be completed, according to its original plan, as a matter of life and death," Health Minister Danny Naveh told reporters.

But another deadline looms: The International Court of Justice is due to rule July 9 on claims by several Arab nations that the security fence is illegal and masks an Israeli scheme to annex West Bank land. Israel refused to appear before the court, arguing that the issue is not within the court’s purview.

Few in Jerusalem expect sympathy for Israel’s security needs at The Hague, whose decisions are not binding but can prompt more serious U.N. resolutions. Yet Israel’s High Court of Justice, which enjoys world renown for regularly upholding Palestinian rights, may have gone a long way toward offsetting international pressure against the fence.

"Today’s ruling not only showed that Israel does not freely trample on the underdog, but also reaffirmed the fact that the fence is a bona fide lifesaver, rather than some ploy to seize West Bank land," a senior source in Sharon’s office said.

While some right-wing politicians in Israel blasted the decision, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations released a positive statement.

The judges rejected the contention that the fence was a political measure and accepted that it was a security measure, James Tisch, the conference’s chairman, and Malcolm Hoenlein, its executive vice chairman, noted in the statement.

"The ruling renders the case before the International Court of Justice all the more irrelevant and inappropriate," they said.