BIDOU, West Bank – Israel's Supreme Court sided with the Palestinians in a precedent-setting decision Wednesday, ordering the government to reroute part of its West Bank separation barrier near Jerusalem because it causes too much suffering.
The ruling — the first major legal decision on the barrier — cracked a cornerstone of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's (search) plan to disengage from the Palestinians by 2005.
Palestinians rejoiced at the move. A family in this West Bank village expressed relief at no longer being blocked from its olive trees, and a little boy rode his bicycle up and down the barrier route waving a Palestinian flag.
"The wall was choking all of our lives. That's why the decision is important," said Mohammed Abu Eid, a 54-year-old father of 10 whose crops were uprooted to make room for the barrier.
Israel's deputy defense minister, Zeev Boim (search), said the ruling would delay completion of the barrier, which Israel says it crucial for keeping out homicide bombers. "Now there will be a court appeal on every meter (yard) of the fence," Boim told Israel TV's Channel One.
The court said the barrier must be rerouted, even at the cost of Israeli security. Several officials decried the ruling as a security menace, but the Defense Ministry — which oversees the barrier's construction — said it would comply.
The court also forced the government to return land that has been seized and compensate the Palestinians for their financial losses, making it less likely the government can finish the project by next year as planned.
Army planners met Wednesday evening to discuss the fallout from the court ruling.
The ruling focused on a stretch of barrier near Jerusalem that would have separated some 35,000 Palestinians from their crops. Foundations had been laid along parts of the 25-mile section, and earthmovers had leveled ground and uprooted trees elsewhere in preparation for construction.
With Wednesday's decision, similar lawsuits are likely for other parts of the 425-mile complex of fences, concrete walls, trenches and razor wire.
"We won't stop here," said Mohammed Dahla, a lawyer for the petitioners. "We will continue our legal struggle against this wall."
The court did not shoot down the barrier itself but rather the chosen route, which it said "injures the local inhabitants in a severe and acute way."
The decision comes a week before the world court at The Hague, Netherlands, was to issue its own advisory ruling on the barrier Palestinians decry as an attempt to expand Israel's borders.
One-fourth completed, the barrier has already disrupted the lives of thousands of Palestinians who have been cut off from their lands and prevented from reaching other villages and population centers.
"We've been living in hell," cried Fatma Ahmad Abu Eid, a Palestinian woman whose house had been marked for destruction.
"We had so many olive trees here until they chopped them down. How can we make a living now?"
Some Israeli officials have cited the barrier as a key factor in reducing the frequency of suicide bombings in Israel. There have been no such attacks in 3 1/2 months, the longest stretch since the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000.
Standing in front of a West Bank house whose front yard had become a construction site for the barrier, Dahla, the Palestinian lawyer, said a wall built within Israel's pre-1967 frontier — along the so-called Green Line — would keep out bombers without usurping Palestinian land.
"If they built it on their side of the Green Line (search), would it not have exactly the same effect?" he asked. "It's a land grab rather than a security wall."
The Supreme Court focused on the humanitarian aspects of the barrier, saying it "severely violated" the freedom of movement and "severely impaired" people's livelihoods.
Sharon's critics say he's using the barrier to impose a political reality: a final settlement with the Palestinians that would enable Israel to keep large tracts of West Bank land.
Under Sharon's plan for "unilateral disengagement," Israel would complete the separation barrier and withdraw from the Gaza Strip by the end of 2005.
The planned Gaza withdrawal also has faced difficulties in recent days, with militants there firing rockets into the Israeli town of Sderot, killing two people.
Israeli troops on Wednesday encircled the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun (search), tearing up roads in an offensive aimed at halting rocket attacks. A Palestinian teenager was killed, Palestinians said.
Security officials said Wednesday that hundreds of troops would remain in northern Gaza indefinitely, and that Israel plans to establish a "security zone" there to halt rocket attacks. Structures would be set up for Israeli forces, including fortified troop positions, ramps for tanks and other armored vehicles, and new roads, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The army and the Defense Ministry declined comment, but Sharon has promised panicked Israelis in the border area he would stop the barrages with "wide-ranging actions."