The High Court on Sunday froze proceedings over the state's plan to build the separation barrier past the West Bank village Battir, whose ancient agricultural terraces, which villagers are still farming, were recognized last year by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Villagers and Israeli environmentalists claimed victory in their three-year battle against the plan.
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"This triumph is a victory for Palestine as a whole," Akram Badir, head of the local council in Battir, south of Jerusalem, told the Palestinian news agency Ma'an.
"This is a great achievement for everyone who cares about preserving our environmental and cultural heritage," said Gideon Bromberg, head of Friends of the Earth – Israel. "The High Court today put an end to the web of deception and foolishness the defense ministry has engaged in over the construction of the separation barrier in this unique part of the world."
Along the way, the villagers and Friends of the Earth-Israel were joined in their petition by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, which took the highly unusual step of coming out strongly against the Defense Ministry's plan. Others joining the extraordinarly broad coalition of opponents included Gush Etzion settlers and the Gush Etzion Field School.
A turning point in the controversy came three months ago with an interview given by Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon to Makor Rishon newspaper, in which he said the ministry had no plans to go forward with construction at any time soon. "It's not a priority at all," Ya'alon said. "I could use the excuse that we don't have the money, but the point is that I don't see a need at the moment for a fence around Gush Etzion."
Right after the interview was published, the petitioners submitted it to the court, saying it contradicted the state's long-held contention that contruction of the barrier at Battir was a matter of utmost urgency because it was the last unfenced stretch between the West Bank and Israel. Between Ya'alon's interview and the state's announcement that there was no money for the construction because of the government's collapse and consequent failure to pass the 2015 budget, the court decided on Sunday to vacate the petitions. Thus, it effectively forbade the government from constructing the barrier at Battir before submitting a new building plan, which would be subject to further court challenges.
Court President Asher Grunis ruled if the government decided later to go ahead with the construction, it would have to inform the petitioners ahead of time to allow them time to prepare their legal responses. Attorney Michael Sfard, who represented Friends of the Earth – Israel, said the court's ruling suspends for a long time the possibility of extending the separation barrier past Battir.
"The ruling does not say it's forbidden to build, but the judges, after three years of deliberations, basically say that on the day [the state] decides to build, everything will start from the beginning," Sfard said.
Grunis wrote, "Inasmuch as the [state] contended throughout the various stages of proceedings that there was a vital security need to contruct the barrier along a route next to Battir, at this point the defense minister position is that building the separation barrier along this route (while stressing its security importance) is not of a priority that would justify building it at this time."
Said Bromberg, "It's just too bad that the army chose to waste everyone's time for two whole years with its claim about an immediate security need, when it had no intention, according to its recent declarations, to build the fence in the area."