OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (Reuters) â€” Israel’s top court ordered the government on Thursday to reroute part of its West Bank barrier to reduce Palestinian hardship, a ruling that could force it to remove a section already built on occupied land.
But Israel’s supreme court justices sparked Palestinian anger when they declared it legal to build the barrier partly inside the West Bank, rejecting a World Court ruling last year that it breached international law and should be torn down.
The barrier remains a major source of tension following Israel’s completion of its pullout from the Gaza Strip this week after 38 years of occupation.
Israel calls the structure a bulwark against suicide bombers. Palestinians say it is a landgrab to deny them a viable state.
The planned 600km network of fences and walls, now more than half completed, is seen as stark evidence of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s strategy of keeping a permanent hold on areas of the West Bank much larger than the former Gaza settlements.
The supreme court, in a unanimous decision of nine justices, told the government to find a way to reroute a 13km segment of the barrier already built near the northern West Bank settlement of Alfei Menashe, home to 5,500 settlers.
A petition had been filed with the court on behalf of residents of five Palestinian villages who had complained that they were being cut off from the rest of the West Bank.
“It has been ruled that the state must, within a reasonable period, reconsider various fence route alternatives at Alfei Menashe while examining security options which cause less injury to the lives of the residents of the villagers,” the court said.
Saved from ‘certain extinction’
Michael Sfard, an Israeli lawyer representing the Palestinians, hailed the decision, saying: This ruling saves five villages from certain extinction.”
The defence ministry said it was studying the ruling.
Israel rerouted large barrier segments near Jerusalem last year under court order after Palestinians complained of land confiscation and being cut off from jobs, schools and hospitals.
The new path cuts into eight per cent of the West Bank, less than half of what was originally planned. About 245,000 settlers live in the West Bank, home to 2.4 million Palestinians.
In Thursday’s decision, the Israeli court also ruled that the Jewish state had a right to build the barrier on occupied land but only where the army had established security reasons for its construction.
The court said the World Court’s advisory ruling of blanket illegality was flawed because it did not consider Israel’s security needs.
Israel has faced a campaign of Palestinian suicide bombings and other attacks during a five-year-old Palestinian uprising that has also been marked by fierce army raids in Palestinian areas.
“It was unfortunate that the Israeli court rejected the decision by the highest international court on earth,” said Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat.
Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Israel Radio: “The importance is the court made it legal for a fence beyond the Green Line and decided the World Court ruling is not binding.”
Israel had already said it would not abide by the World Court decision and has continued erecting the barrier, which hugs the Green Line boundary between Israel and the West Bank in many places but snakes into occupied territory in others.
Israel had boycotted the World Court hearings at the Hague, accusing the UN’s highest tribunal of bias.