BILIN, West Bank (AFP) — Israel's Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the state to re-route a section of its West Bank barrier at a village that has become a potent symbol of Palestinian opposition to the construction.
The court ruled that the route of the separation barrier in the Bilin area was "highly prejudicial" to the villagers and demanded that the government map out an alternative route "within a reasonable period".
Palestinians have accused Israel of seizing around 200 hectares (500 acres) of land in the farming village for the barrier and charged that thousands of olive trees have been uprooted for construction work.
In the unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel, the court said the villagers had been discriminated against by having land seized and trees cut down to make way for the snaking maximum security wire fence outside Bilin.
"Furthermore, the villagers of Bilin are cut off from a large part of their farming land by the current route of the barrier," said the court.
For two and a half years, foreign peace activists, Israelis and Palestinians have demonstrated against the barrier at least once a week in Bilin, 12 kilometres (about seven miles) west of Ramallah.
The demonstrations have frequently turned violent, with stone-throwing protestors standing off against Israeli soldiers armed with tear gas and rubber bullets.
Dozens of Bilin residents came out to celebrate their victory, waving Palestinian flags and throwing candy at the impassive Israeli soldiers on the other side of the barbed wire fence.
"The Israeli court decision proves that peaceful struggle can be effective," said Abdallah Abu Rahmeh, who has coordinated many of the rallies.
"We have managed to recover more than 100 hectares of our lands without losing a single martyr," he said.
Bilin Mayor Ahmed Issa Abdallah Yassin, who brought the complaint that resulted in Tuesday's ruling, hailed the decision as a "victory."
"We will recover a part of the lands that were confiscated by the wall," he told AFP.
Lawyer Michael Sfard, who took on the case more than two years ago, said the ruling meant that the villagers' traditional farming livelihoods would be guaranteed, although he recognised that not all their land would be returned.
"Unfortunately not all the land of Bilin will return to their owners but at least 1,000 dunums (250 acres) will remain on the Bilin side of the fence and that will secure the livelihood its inhabitants," he told AFP.
Israel says its massive "security barrier," made of electric fencing, barbed wire and concrete walls, is needed to stop potential attackers from infiltrating the country and Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Palestinians have denounced it as an "apartheid wall" aimed at grabbing their land and undermining the viability of their promised state.
"The reason for the route was not security but to enlarge the settlement which stands nearby, Modiin Ilit," said Sfard.
In 2004, the International Court of Justice issued a non-binding ruling that parts of the 650-kilometre (410-mile) barrier criss-crossing the West Bank are illegal and should be torn down. Israel has vowed to complete the project.
Israel's high court has issued several rulings ordering a dismantling or re-routing of pieces of the controversial barrier.
But it has also rejected petitions, ruling that Israeli security is of primary concern and finding no alternative route other than the one outlined by the Israeli army.
Anarchists Against The Wall, the main Israeli group that has demonstrated in Bilin, welcomed the decision as an "important political victory".
"It proved that the people, when they chose to act, have power over Israeli institutions," said one of its activists, Jonathan Pollak.
"But the court decision still approved building the wall on Palestinian land in the West Bank in violation of international law."
Palestinians have likewise vowed to continue their protests.
"We got some of our rights," said Wajih Burnat, a shepherd in Bilin. "But we have not recovered all our land. So the struggle must continue."
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