After a five-year Palestinian campaign,the highly controversial section of the Israeli separation barrier at Bilin is being rerouted.
The barrier -- mostly fence, part wall -- was erected by Israel at the height of the second intifada to keep suicide bombers out. The track roughly corresponds with the Green Line -- the pre- 1967 borders -- but runs through the West Bank in certain places, blocking Palestinian access to their lands and other villages. Such contested sections have been challenged in Israeli courts, which have on occasion been dissatisfied with the state's security reasoning and ruled the track causes disproportionate harm to Palestinians.
One such section, near the village of Bilin, has long been an icon of the fence controversy, popular protests and bureaucracy. Sporadic in most other places, protests and sometimes fatal scuffles with Israeli soldiers persevere in Bilin, having taken place every Friday for the last five years.
The Bilin protest has become a draw for political activists from the Palestinian territories, Israel and abroad and a local model for popular protest. It's also become a pretty big headache for the Israeli army, and sometimes a diplomatic headache too, as authorities grapple with different ways of keeping away foreign activists.
In recent days, Israel has begun dismantling the controversial section of fence. The fence had dipped too generously into the West Bank, including privately owned lands, more for the sake of the nearby Jewish settlement of Modiin Ilit than for security reasons, and had to be rerouted "in a reasonable period of time," the Supreme Court ruled. That was in September 2007.
Now 2 miles of fence is being dismantled and replaced with 1.7 miles of wall that wraps around Modiin Ilit and hangs tighter around the settlement than the village. The barrier has moved about 1,800 feet away from Bilin, allowing access to farming areas without having to coordinate with the army.
The project cost $7.5 million, and another $1.5 million was spent on relocating olive and other orchard trees, according to Israel Defense Forces Col. Saar Tzur, commander of the Binyamin regional brigade. The work is to be finished in coming days, after which Israeli watchtowers will be repositioned and forces moved to the new route, he said.
The new route will present a bit of a challenge to the army, which will have a shorter response time in case of an infiltration of the settlement. For the most part, past troubles have targeted the barrier itself rather than the next-door neighbors.
Will the Friday protests stop now? Very unlikely, according to Tzur. The main reason is money, he said. The Bilin cause has become a well-financed "riot industry."
What took Israel so long to implement its own court ruling from September 2007? The army's short answer is "Ask the Defense Ministry." The military says it doesn't decide policy, only implements it. Another answer may have to do with another September, the one coming up, when the Palestinians will go to the United Nations for recognition of their sovereignty. Between the Friday protests and other regional unrest, Israel needs more holes in its fences like a hole in the head.
-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jeruslem
Photo: This wall will replace the fence along the road behind it in Bilin, in the West Bank. Credit: Batsheva Sobelman / Los Angeles Times