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West Bank village scores partial victory against wall.

Emad Bornat, a 37-year old videographer from the West Bank village of Bil'in, remembers when there was no metal barrier or Jewish settlement on the horizon of his hometown. The village's western view looked out on agricultural fields, olive trees and open land. "It was beautiful," he said.

Bil'in's vistas changed several years ago when the Israeli government routed its security barrier through the village, its path drawn to accommodate the anticipated expansion of Matityahu East, a southern outpost of the Jewish settlement Modi'n Illit. The barrier separated Bil'in, a farming community, from 55 percent of its land so for the past two and half years, residents held weekly protests along its route. To argue their plight in an Israeli court, the Bil'in local council hired Michael Sfard, a prominent Israeli human rights attorney.

Last month, the village's efforts seemed to have paid off.

On Sept. 4 Israel's High Court of Justice ordered the government to reroute the section of the barrier that splits Bil'in from its farmlands, but on the following day rejected a petition to dismantle Matityahu East, which is partially located on village property. The net effect of the two rulings requires Israel to return only some of the land it expropriated from Bil'in.

"Good, but not enough," was Bornat's assessment of the two rulings. "The illegal settlements are still on our land." In September, Bornat toured the United States with Bil'in Against the Wall, his documentary chronicling the villagers' protest against the barrier.

Israel began building its barrier in 2002, with the stated purpose of preventing Palestinian suicide bombers from entering Israeli population centers. Most Israelis regard the barrier as a necessity of security and support its construction.

But Palestinians say Israel is using the barrier--a 24-foot-high concrete wall in some places, a metal fence elsewhere--to grab land. Much of the wall's 425-mile route runs through the West Bank where it frequently juts in several miles or more to encompass Jewish settlements and the undeveloped land surrounding them. Only 60 percent complete, the barrier will ultimately annex 10 percent of Palestinian territory and 80 percent of the settlements.

The section that divides Bil'in lies two and half miles east of the "Green Line," the pre-1967 border between Israel and the West Bank. Here the fence swoops around Modi'in Illit, one of the fastest growing Jewish settlements in the West Bank. According to Israel's Ministry of Housing, Modi'in Illit's current population of 35,000 is projected to increase to 150,000 by 2020. Like many West Bank settlements, it has spawned several outposts, among them Matityahu East. The controversial development was built and then occupied last August by hundreds of ultra-orthodox Jews in violation of a court injunction.

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Bil'in's barrier restricted villagers' access to their fields to a gate controlled by the Israeli army. Residents began vigorously demonstrating against the fence shortly after its construction. Bornat's documentary records how the protests, held every Friday, evolved from shoving matches between farmers and young Israeli troops into orchestrated processions that frequently ended with sol diers firing tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets and village kids throwing stones. The village's struggle attracted the support of internationals and a small group of Israeli activists who were often at the forefront of the weekly marches pleading with soldiers not to shoot.

Mohammed Khatib, a leading member of Bil'in's Popular Committee Against the Wall and village council secretary, estimates more than 800 demonstrators were injured during the demonstrations, including an Israeli attorney and a Bil'in resident. Both suffered permanent brain damage from rubber-coated steel bullets shot at close range, Khatib wrote in an article that appeared in Znet, an online magazine, Sept. 20. Forty-nine villagers were arrested over the course of the campaign, according to Khatib. Some spent months in prison, among them Bornat, who said he was badly beaten by the Israeli military.

Over the past two years, Sfard's office filed several petitions challenging the legality of the barrier and the outpost. One submitted by villagers and an Israeli peace group demanded Matityahu East be dismantled because the permits allowing the building had been issued illegally.

In the High Court's Sept. 4 ruling, a panel of three judges rejected the government's argument that the mile-long section of barrier cutting through Bil'in was necessary for military security reasons and ordered the route to be redrawn. The judges stipulated that protecting Matityahu East B, the undeveloped eastern section of the outpost, should not be a consideration for the new route, implying that area will be returned to Bil'in.

The next day, three different judges retroactively legalized the construction of the buildings on the western side of the outpost and sanctioned their occupancy. According to The Jerusalem Post, the court ruled the demolition demand Would have caused severe hardship to hundreds of people who had bought apartments without knowing they were constructed illegally. The court also noted that Heftsiba Construction, the Italian company that built the outpost, has collapsed financially, making it difficult to compensate residents.

The rulings granted "a little bit of victory to both sides," said Emily Schaeffer, an American attorney who works for Sfard. "The settlers shot for a mile and got a half a mile. Bil'in wasn't awarded anything. They were just mostly restored to where they began. The residents received very little compensation for loss of livelihood over the past several years or for those who were injured or killed in their community's struggle against the wall. The lesson here is not great. If you buy land and move in quickly enough, you just might get some of it." But, Schaeffer added, the judges harsh language toward the government in the Sept. 4 verdict reflected an unusual willingness to stand up to Israel's security establishment.

Mazin Qumsiyeh, a Palestinian American professor of genetics at Yale University and author of a book on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, was less charitable in his assessment. The first decision was vague. The second decision was negative and illustrates the character of the court, which is to side with the settlers," he said.

Qumsiyeh and Schaeffer are among those who believe the two verdicts demonstrate the limitations of the Israeli judiciary. In 2004, the International Court of Justice in The Hague declared barrier construction east of the Green Line in violation of international law. Israel rejected the ruling and its courts will only consider the barrier's legality on a piecemeal basis. Of the more than 100 petitions challenging the barrier, less than five resulted in rerouting.

According to Schaeffer, the High Court has remained deliberately vague with regard to West Bank settlements, " also considered illegal under international law. "The court cannot say the settlements are legal because it would lose the respect of the international community. But if declares the settlements illegal, it would lose Israeli public confidence," she said. The court's desire to strike a delicate balance has placed attorneys representing Palestinian land rights in a Catch-22, she noted.

"You can never say the barrier that is protecting a settlement is illegal.... The argument has to be whether there is a military necessity. The High Court has said protecting a settlement could justify a military necessity but defending a buffer zone for that settlement does not, which is what happened in Bil'in," she said.

Despite their limited victory, Bil'in villagers interpreted the Sept. 4 ruling as something to celebrate. At the Friday protest following the court's announcement, exuberant men hoisted Sfard on their shoulders and danced in the sweets. Basel Mansour, a representative of the People's Committee of Bil'in delivered an effusive speech of gratitude to the Israeli activists that was later translated and published in the Sept. 12 issue of the Israeli daily, Ha'aretz. Calling the activists "real partners," Mansour said, "Together we demonstrated the truth that Israelis can stand beside Palestinians and live with them in peace and security, and even struggle with them against injustice and occupation."

In a statement issued Sept. 6, members of the Bil'in popular committee promised to continue struggling against the "apartheid wall" and settlement but said they wanted to first ensure the court's Sept. 4 decision was implemented. Israel's Defense Ministry, which oversees the planning and construction of the barrier, has said it would study the ruling and respect it, according to The New York Times. A Web site documenting Bil'in's campaign, (www.bilin-village.org) reports that as of Sept. 21 the fence had not been moved and soldiers were still using tear gas against demonstrators.

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RELATED ARTICLE: Israel apologizes to Nobel Peace laureate.

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Last month, Dr. Zion Evrony, Israeli ambassador to Ireland, met with Nobel Peace laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire and her colleague Ann Patterson to apologize on behalf of his government for an April 20 shooting incident in Bil'in. The two women, who were in the village attending a conference on nonviolence, were gassed while marching in one of the weekly demonstrations against the barrier. Maguire was also shot in the leg with a rubber-coated steel bullet by an Israeli soldier standing 20 yards away, a distance that can render rubber bullets lethal.

Maguire said she accepted the Israeli government's apology and thanked Evrony for the meeting. She then asked that the rights of the Palestinian people to nonviolently protest "the building of this illegal wall on their land be respected and upheld." Maguire said she asked the ambassador about the type of gas used against the Bil'in demonstrators, and said she was later informed that the Israeli military police planned to investigate the April incident.--Claire Schaeffer-Duffy

[Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a frequent contributor to NCR.]
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Title Annotation:WORLD
Author:Schaeffer-Duffy, Claire
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Oct 5, 2007
Words:1598
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