The Defense Ministry this week completed carrying out the September 2005 High Court order to alter the route of the West Bank separation fence near the settlement of Alfei Menashe.

Work was officially completed Wednesday, but yesterday workers could still be seen dismantling sections of the fence along the nearby wadi. The rerouting means three Palestinian villages - Ras al-Tira, Daba, and Wasi Rasha - will no longer be locked into enclaves by the fence, and their combined 900 residents will now be linked to Qalqilyah and other area communities.

The gate to the old fence, once the main passage for authorized residents and service providers going to and from the surrounded villages, has also been dismantled.

Yesterday, the newly laid asphalt and iron gate shone in the bright midday sun. Four hundred residents of the two Bedouin villages Arab al-Ramadin and Arab Abu Farda (both remain surrounded by the fence ) assumed the new gate would be available to them. The gate, however, remained closed, and residents of the those villages were unable to learn from Israel Defense Forces and Civil Administration officials whether it would be opened.

The first concern of residents along the altered route on Wednesday was ensuring their children were able to travel to school. Work on the new route had not yet been completed, so students left for school as usual through the old gate. By the afternoon, when school was out, the old gate had disappeared. But the students, upon reaching the new gate, discovered it was locked, with no Israeli soldiers around to open it. For an hour and a half, 50 students, ranging in age from first graders to high schoolers waited, just a kilometer and a half from their homes.

While area residents contacted the Civil Administration, an interim solution was found; students could pass through the Habla checkpoint on the western side of the fence.

They did the same yesterday, with a Civil Administration officer present to their smooth passage. It lengthened the trip by an hour, but the biggest obstacle was another problem - the gate is opened only three times a day, at fixed times. When the bus returns from school at 2 P.M., the gate is already closed. Children again waited for 45 minutes for a soldier to arrive and allow them through. Adults are prohibited from passing through the Habla checkpoint.

Residents of the communities stuck in enclaves must pass through designated gates, whose numbers are printed on their entry permits.

The permits of Arab al-Ramadin residents indicate the gate that is no longer in use. They can use Route 55 to circumvent Qalqilyah and reach Crossing 109. But conditions on crossing there are numerous. Only the driver may remain in the car, and all passengers (including women, children, the ill and the elderly ) must walk a path of several hundred meters to reach the facility where a security inspection is carried out. Only very small portions of food can be taken through the checkpoint, and electrical devices, gas canisters and other everyday objects are forbidden. Children cannot pass through without being accompanied by their parents.

Arab al-Ramadin residents said yesterday they sometimes feel imprisoned in their own homes. Worse still, they live in constant fear that their deteriorating living conditions smacks of a sinister attempt to remove them from the region. They have already been made refugees once; during Israel's 1948 War of Independence they fled the Be'er Sheva area. In the 1950s, they bought the land they now inhabit, where they live by herding sheep.

Alfei Menashe was created in 1983, a few kilometers from them. Israel considers the Bedouin there as residents of illegal communities and refuses to create a master plan for them or permit them to erect additional structures to augment those in existence in 1967.

Residents are not connected to the power grid and are forced to rely on an expensive generator, which they run only several hours a day. Roads in the village are unpaved, and residents live in concrete shacks and huts for which demolition orders have been issued.

The separation fence, erected in 2003, cut them off from their livelihoods - pasture land and markets where they sold their wares. Several times over the past few years the Civil Administration offered to relocate them to unidentified locations elsewhere in the West Bank. That way, the Alfei Menashe enclave (11,000 dunams before the route was altered, now some 8,000 dunams ) would be Palestinian-free. The Bedouin refuse to move.

The coordinator of government activities in the territories said in response: "The Civil Administration has devoted considerable resources toward resolving the residency problems of the Al-Ramadan tribe, most of whom live in illegally built structures. They were offered the solution of permanent housing slated for the Palestinian population living in the area, but the matter has not progressed due to opposition on the part of [the Bedouin]."

The IDF Spokesman's Office added: "Palestinians are allowed to pass through Habla checkpoint. We stress that before the changes were made, the Civil Administration engaged in dialogue with Palestinian authorities to explain the significance of the change [in the fence route]. This move places four villages on the Palestinian side, while the population of village residents remaining on the Israeli side is now smaller. Conditions for most of the Palestinian population have therefore improved."