Israel's Supreme Court has rejected a controversial plan to build the West Bank separation barrier through the Cremisan Valley, and instructed the country's defense ministry to find a less "destructive" route.
The decision was hailed by Fouad Twal, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, as a "victory for everyone." The campaign against the fence, which would have divided church properties and separated dozens of Palestinian Christian families from their land, had even drawn the intercession of Pope Francis.
Twal added: "You can see the happiness of everyone who is here. It has been the result of a campaign not only by local people but by Vatican officials, the foreign consuls who came here and all those who raised the issue internationally. Coming before Easter, this is a joyous resurrection for us."
A local priest, Father Ibrahim Shomali, said: "We have been suffering for nine years because we feared we'd lose our land. It wasn't easy to get this decision so we thank God."
The West Bank barrier is the largest infrastructure project in Israel's history. Work on it began in 2002, after the Israeli government announced it was necessary for security concerns. Palestinians are vehemently opposed to what they see as a solidification of land grabs, with the fence cutting into the territory of the West Bank to incorporate Jewish settlements — illegal under international law — into Israel.
The Israeli defense ministry had argued it needed to route the barrier through the Cremisan Valley in order to protect the settlements of Har Gilo and Gilo.
But local residents believed the intention was in fact to connect Har Gilo, a West Bank settlement, to Gilo, a Jerusalem satellite neighborhood.
The Cremisan Valley runs between Jerusalem and Bethlehem and is an important historical site and beauty spot.
As well as separating at least 58 families in the town of Beit Jala from their lands, the planned construction in Cremisan Valley would have split a monastery and winery run by Selesian monks from a convent and primary school run by nuns. Several hundred Palestinian children attend the school, and would have been forced to cross a military checkpoint every day to continue to do so. The Supreme Court has now ruled that these two sites should remain connected on the Palestinian side of the divide.
The legal proceedings have been drawn out over nine years, and Pope Francis has played a role in the fracas. During a visit to Israel he met with some of the families involved in the case. In February, Mayor of Bethlehem Vera Baboun appealed to him again during a meeting. A party of 16 bishops also visited the valley this year, and reiterated their desire to halt the construction.
Speaking to VICE News, Sara Hirschhorn, a lecturer in Israel studies at Oxford University, noted that the Israeli Supreme Court was continuing to play a major role "as a check on the presidential and legislative arms of the Israeli government, as this is only one of many occasions where it has insisted on re-routing, or preventing, the separation wall."
She added that it was clear that both domestic and international law continued to be one forum where Palestinians could change Israeli policies.
Hirschhorn also suggested that this announcement was likely "a move to appease the Vatican before Easter and possibly also to deter intercommunal violence during the Passover/Easter holiday." She suggested it would be interesting to monitor the role religious leaders would continue to play in negotiating and managing the conflict over the coming months.
Palestinian American legal scholar and human rights attorney Noura Erakat told VICE News welcomed the decision, but said she was skeptical it would hold: "It is at best, temporary as the Israeli military general in the West Bank retains ultimate discretion over security matters."
She noted that so far the routing of the separation wall had resulted in the annexation of almost 13 percent of the West Bank's territory, adding: "Nothing short of international pressure will suffice to cease Israel's transgressions and nothing short of a viable political solution will protect Palestinians from them."
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