Every inch counts in "border" battle between Palestine and Israel

It's the same ritual every Friday: residents of this Palestinian village march from the local mosque to protest the construction of Israel's West Bank separation barrier on their land. Villagers hope their stubborn protests, along with a petition to Israel's Supreme Court, will sway Israeli public opinion and force the government to move the barrier away from Bilin, closer to the 1967 Israel-West Bank frontier.

Court challenges and protests, as well as a U.S. veto of barrier segments jutting deep into the West Bank, are increasingly reshaping what started out three years ago as a route drawn solely by the Israeli government.

In this battle, every inch counts, particularly for the Palestinians who say Israel is drawing its own border without waiting for peace talks. Israel insists the barrier is meant solely to keep out Palestinian attackers and that a future border will be determined in negotiations.

Yet Israel has been drawing the line inside the West Bank, rather than on the old frontier, to encompass the largest Jewish settlements. The barrier route slices off some 8 percent of the West Bank, land the Palestinians seek for their state, and hampers the access of thousands of Palestinians to farmland, jobs and schools.

The Palestinians have had some success in getting the barrier moved closer to Israel and won a moral victory in 2004 when the world court at the Hague, Netherlands said in a non-binding ruling that the structure is illegal and should be torn down.

Nearly three-fourths of the 680-kilometer (425-mile) barrier have been built.

Segments amounting to about 10 percent of the total route are hung up in court, and the legal challenges are delaying construction of some of the adjacent stretches where the government can't start building until it knows the court's rulings, said a senior Defense Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly.

In addition, construction of two large segments that would cut deep into the West Bank to encompass large Jewish settlements has been frozen under American pressure.

In a landmark ruling in September, the Supreme Court ordered the army to tear down a section of the barrier encircling the Jewish settlement of Alfei Menashe and five Palestinian villages. The court said the barrier can extend into the West Bank, but cannot impose undue hardships on Palestinians, and asked that the loop around the Palestinian villages be removed.

The residents of Bilin hope the Alfei Menashe ruling will help their case.

More than half of Bilin's land, 575 acres (235 hectares), has been confiscated by Israel for a wide barrier loop around the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Sefer, which is rapidly expanding with hundreds of new housing units.

Bilin's initial Supreme Court appeal has failed, but the village of 1,700 has now hired a new attorney and is preparing for a second legal battle, said Abdullah Abu Rahmi, a resident leading the fight against the barrier.

On a recent Friday, some three dozen Palestinians, Israelis and foreigners marched from the mosque toward an olive grove adjacent to the barrier, attempting unsuccessfully to harvest olives. Some carried ladders and children held plastic buckets, using them as makeshift drums amid chanting.


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