Israel on Sunday began tearing down a section of its contentious West Bank separation barrier near a village that has come to symbolize Palestinian opposition to the enclosure, the military said.
The rerouting marked a major victory for the residents of Bilin and the international groups that have backed their struggle. But they said it fell short of their demands to remove the structure from the village altogether and vowed to continue with their weekly protests.
The dismantling of the section near the village of Bilin comes four years after Israel's Supreme Court ordered it torn down, rejecting the military's argument that the route was necessary to secure the nearby Modiin Illit settlement. Planning and legal wrangling held up its removal until now.
Col. Saar Tzur, the regional brigade commander, said the military has begun taking apart a 2-mile (3.2- kilometer) stretch of the barrier and has replaced it with a 1.6 mile-long (2.7 kilometer) wall adjacent to the settlement. He said the new route would give the military less response time in case of a potential infiltration.
"This is a new threat but we can handle it," he said, adding that the work would be done by the end of the week.
Bilin lost half its land to the barrier, and years of weekly protests there have frequently evolved into clashes between activists and Israeli troops.
Israel began building the barrier in late 2002 to keep out Palestinian attackers amid a wave of suicide bombers targeting its cities. It says the structure is needed to keep militants from reaching Israeli population centers.
But the barrier juts into the West Bank, and critics say the route is designed to grab land that Palestinians want for a state. The barrier, when completed, is projected to swallow some 6 to 8 percent of the West Bank.
Tzur said the new route will put some 140 acres (55 hectares) back in Palestinian hands. He said the total cost of the project is $9 million.
The protests have become a ritual of sorts each Friday, making the once out-of-the-way farming village a fashionable cause among activists. Nobel Peace Prize laureates Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu are among the notables who have participated. Naalin started similar marches three years ago.
The Bilin protests, attended by villagers as well as Israeli and international activists, usually involve a mix of marching, chanting and throwing rocks at Israeli troops. Two Palestinians, and five in the nearby village of Naalin, have died and hundreds others have been wounded since the protests began in 2005.
One Bilin demonstrator was hit in the chest with a tear gas canister and another woman died after she inhaled tear gas. Palestinians said she had a pre-existing medical condition that was exacerbated by the acrid fumes.
In March 2009, 38-year-old Tristan Anderson of Oakland, Calif., was badly wounded after he was hit in the head with a tear gas canister during a West Bank protest. Anderson lost his right eye and suffered brain damage.
Dozens of Israeli troops and police also have been injured, including one who lost an eye.
Tzur, the military commander, called the protests acts of violence, and said he doubted they would cease even after Israel rerouted the barrier's course because there was "big money involved" in backing the protesters.
Indeed, Bilin activists said the move would not influence their opposition.
"We are going to continue until we get all our rights. This barrier isn't for security. It's to steal land and build settlements," said Rani Burnat, a 30-year-old resident paralyzed in a separate demonstration 10 years ago.
In Ramallah Sunday, the Palestinian leadership endorsed an appeal to the U.N. General Assembly in September to recognize a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem. The decision did not include operative steps.
Recently some Palestinian officials have expressed doubts about the initiative, which comes in place of peace talks with Israel.