By Akiva Eldar, Haaretz Correspondent
Eight months after the High Court of Justice ordered the state to dismantle the segment of the separation fence near the Palestinian village of Bil’in within “a reasonable amount of time,” the Defense Ministry has yet to do so. It has not even begun to plan an alternative route there, in accordance with the court’s instruction.
These steps are not included in the Defense Ministry’s work plan for 2008. A spokesman for the ministry, Shlomo Dror, said Wednesday that the omission stems from budget constraints, and said he hoped that planning the alternative route would be included in the work plan for 2009 – in other words, a year and a quarter after the High Court ruling, at the very least.
In September 2007, the High Court ruled that a 1,700-meter segment of the separation fence near Bil’in must be dismantled and moved to an alternative route. The court said Israel built the segment in question on land appropriated from Palestinians, falsely citing security needs when the main objective was to enable the expansion of a nearby settlement, Modi’in Ilit (Kiryat Sefer). Furthermore, the justices ruled that the current route is topographically inferior, which endangers the security forces that patrol the area.
The justices, presided over by Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, ruled that the current route was planned in order to include part of Modi’in Ilit’s planned neighborhood of Matityahu East on the Israeli side. Therefore, the justices said the alternative route must be set without taking into account the settlement’s development plans.
Despite this, contractors recently began to lay the groundwork for building the eastern part of the neighborhood, on land the High Court ruled should be east of the fence.
The fence route currently cuts through 260 dunams of Bil’in lands, and traps another 1,600 dunams between the fence and the Green Line. For the past few years the fence in this area has been the focus of demonstrations by Bil’in residents and left-wing activists from Israel and abroad, who protest the difficulties it creates for Palestinians. There have frequently been clashes between demonstrators and security forces, sometimes resulting in injuries on both sides.
The villagers’ lawyer, Michael Sfard, is threatening legal action against the defense minister and commander of the Israel Defense Forces in the West Bank for failing to act on the matter. In a letter to Deputy Attorney General Mike Blass several days ago, Sfard said he will sue them for contempt of court unless he receives an explanation for the delay in planning the alternative route by the end of this week. He demanded that the Defense Ministry present this very month a new route that meets the High Court’s criteria.
“It is hard to shake the impression … that the respondents [the Israeli authorities A.E.] chose to outsmart the High Court of Justice ruling and to hold up the proceedings until the changes on the ground make its implementation impossible,” Sfard wrote in reference to the delay in planning the new route and the construction work in Matityahu East. He added that Bil’in residents and farmers “continue to go through hell to reach their lands, which are supposed to be, according to the High Court ruling, on ‘their’ side of the fence.”
Israel has not altered the route of the separation fence at three other places in the West Bank where the High Court of Justice has ordered it to do so: in the Alfei Menashe region, in Tzofin (Azoun), and Hashmonaim (Na’alin). The Justice Ministry said that due to the Passover holiday, the officials involved could not be reached for comment.