Israel's separation barrier in the West Bank cannot run in wide loops around Israeli settlements to allow for their expansion, the country's Supreme Court ruled Monday, in what a lawyer for Palestinian villagers hailed as a precedent-setting victory .
The barrier, widely seen as the basis for Israel's future border, is two-thirds complete. Critics say that in many areas, the barrier route was not determined by security needs, but by Israel's desire to incorporate as many settlements as possible on the "Israeli side" and to allow for their expansion.
Israel says it built the barrier to keep out Palestinian attackers, including suicide bombers, but the Palestinians and Israeli critics charge that the barrier is part of a land grab.
The high court ruled Monday in the case of Bilin, a West Bank village that has become a symbol for Palestinian opposition to the barrier with weekly protests and clashes between villagers and Israeli troops. Bilin has lost half its land, or 500 acres, to the barrier and to Modiin Illit, home to 40,000 people and expanding rapidly.
Last year, the high court ruled that Israel must move the Bilin barrier westward, concluding that its location had little to do with making the settlement more secure and a lot with giving it more land.
Ruling is 'unprecedented'
On Monday the court rejected the latest route proposal and said the state must come up with a more appropriate path, in line with the court's criteria, as soon as possible.
Bilin's lawyer, Michael Sfard, said the ruling is unprecedented in its detail and would help others challenging the barrier route.
"Security considerations that will shape the new route must only take into account houses that have already been built, and not plans for future construction," the decision said, referring to arguments by state planners that they need a security buffer zone between settlements and the barrier.
The high court said the security buffer, defined in previous court rulings as about 200 meters (yards), "will be measured from existing buildings (of settlements) and not from houses that are planned and were not constructed yet."
Sfard said that if the Defense Ministry complies with the ruling, it would likely prevent the construction of more than 1,000 homes in Modiin Illit and restore about 250 acres to Bilin.
Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman Shlomo Dror was not immediately available for comment.
Israel has left several large gaps in the barrier, including around the large settlements of Maaleh Adumim and Ariel. There, the government hopes to build barrier loops deep into the West Bank that would take tens of thousands of acres the Palestinians seek for their future state.
Shaul Arieli, a barrier expert, said that in the case of Maaleh Adumim, the court decision would only have limited weight because topographic factors also play a role. "But if the government decides to build around Ariel, Kedumim and Karnei Shomron, then it (the ruling) could be very important," he said.