RAMALLAH // Israel began work today to reroute a section of its West Bank wall to restore land to a village that has become a flashpoint of Palestinian opposition to the enclosure. The move comes two and a half years after Israel's supreme court ruled that the barrier must be moved to ease the hardship of Palestinians in the village of Bilin. Palestinians welcomed the development but stressed it fell far short of their demand to dismantle the entire enclosure. Weekly protests near Bilin have become a symbol of the Palestinians' struggle against the barrier on West Bank land they claim for their future state.
Six protesters have been killed and dozens injured in clashes with Israeli forces over it. Bulldozers were on site Thursday and tracks for the new route were being laid down. An anti-barrier activist, Khatib Abu Rahmeh, said the Israeli military had informed village officials that the new route would return 140 hectares of farmland to the village and adjacent communities. Once the new route is built, the section of barrier currently standing around Bilin will be removed, Mr Abu Rahmeh said. "It's a victory for our struggle, but still a small victory until we achieve the big one: removing the wall," he said.
Israeli defence officials confirmed that preliminary work was being done but did not provide details. Israel began building the West Bank barrier in 2002 after a spate of deadly Palestinian attacks on Israelis. Some 232 hectares, more than half of Bilin's land, were confiscated to build a barrier loop around the expanding Jewish settlement of Modiin Ilit, cutting off villagers from their fields.
Protesters have gathered in the village every Friday for the past five years. Soldiers have fired tear gas, stun grenades, and live rounds to disperse them, saying the protests are illegal and that the harsh tactics are a response to rock-throwing and violent rioting. Hundreds of Palestinian, Israeli and foreign demonstrators have been injured, and one Palestinian protester has been killed in clashes with Israeli forces. Five other Palestinians have been killed in demonstrations against the barrier in the nearby village of Naalin. Soldiers have also been injured, including one who lost an eye.
In 2007, Israel's supreme court ordered the government to modify the route through Bilin, dismissing its argument that the current route was necessary to protect residents of the Jewish settlement. The judges ordered the government to come up with a new route in a reasonable period of time. Dozens of court cases like the Bilin appeal have held up construction of the barrier, or forced rerouting of completed sections. Once finished, the barrier is expected to be a 690-kilometres route of towering cement slabs, electronic fencing, trenches and patrol roads. In a number of instances, the high court has ruled in favour of easing hardships caused to Palestinians and moving the route closer to the cease-fire line at the end of the 1948-49 war that followed Israel's creation.
An Israeli airstrike today killed a Palestinian militant and wounded another in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. The Israeli military said it struck militants who were about to attack Israel. The Israeli-Gaza border has been relatively quite since last winter's war ended with an unwritten cease-fire in the coastal strip, though occasional exchanges of fire still erupt. * AP