JERUSALEM Israel's highest court ordered changes Wednesday to the route of a controversial security barrier being built to separate Israel from the West Bank, saying the route creates hardship for Palestinians.
The Israeli Supreme Court affirmed the government's right to build the structure, which is intended to cut off Palestinian access to Israel, but said worries about terrorist attacks didn't trump an obligation to ease Palestinian suffering.
"There is no escaping the conclusion that for reasons of proportionality, the military commander must create an arrangement which will avoid this severe injury to the local inhabitants, even at the cost of a certain reduction of the security demands," the three-judge panel wrote.
Israeli leaders said the barrier is necessary to protect their citizens from Palestinian terrorist attacks. Palestinians complain that its route, which weaves in and out of the West Bank near disputed Jewish settlements, shaves off large chunks of their proposed future state.
Israeli officials have credited the barrier, roughly a quarter of which has been completed, for a sharp drop in Palestinian terrorist attacks this year. Palestinians said it's also disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of them by separating their villages and farmland from the rest of the West Bank.
The proposed route "injures the local inhabitants in a severe and acute way while violating their rights under humanitarian and international law," the court wrote. "Only a separation route based on the path of law will lead the state to the security so yearned for."
The landmark decision affects 19 miles of the security barrier near the Palestinian village of Beit Sourik, about three miles northwest of Jerusalem. Lawyers and experts predicted that the ruling would probably bolster some 20 other legal challenges to the structure, which eventually will stretch 440 miles.
Most of the affected portion hasn't been built, but state-run Israel Radio reported Wednesday that the ruling will require the removal of two miles of already constructed barrier.
A spokeswoman for Israel's Defense Ministry, which is overseeing the barrier's construction, said it would abide by the ruling.
"But it should be noted that the judgment today stated very clearly that Israel has the right to build the security fence," added the spokeswoman, Rachel Ashkenazi. "It's a security fence and not a political means to grab land, as Palestinians claim."
The judges ruled in a case brought by Palestinian villagers in Beit Sourik, who said the barrier would harm 35,000 people in eight hamlets by cutting them off from their schools, workplaces and farmland. Some residents of neighboring Israeli towns supported the suit, arguing that the barrier would destroy their friendly relations with nearby Palestinians.
The court agreed, noting that the barrier's proposed path on the village's west, south and east "is a veritable chokehold, which will severely stifle daily life." The fate of the nearby Palestinian village of Bidu isn't much better, the judges added.
In one of the disqualified sections, Israel wanted the barrier to encompass a mountaintop from which it could "topographically control" a principal highway serving Jerusalem. Without specifying an alternative path, the court ruled that a different route would cause less harm to Palestinians while providing almost equivalent security for Israelis.
Opponents of the fence praised the court. Mohammed Dahla, an attorney for the Palestinian plaintiffs, called it a "courageous and very important" decision. Noam Hofstetter, a spokesman for the Israeli human-rights group B'Tselem, called it "a good decision with what might prove to be fierce consequences regarding the rest of the fence."
Proponents of the barrier said they'd look for ways to make it and its route immune from further court rulings. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is to convene a meeting of top government leaders today (Thursday) to discuss the matter.
Construction of the barrier largely has been frozen by the legal wrangling and Wednesday's ruling will push the completion date past the end of 2005, as was originally planned, Ashkenazi said. She said a new route would be drawn up "based on the proper balance between security and humanitarian considerations," although it would take several weeks to do so.