PDT BILIN, West Bank - In an embarrassing blow, Israel's Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the state to redraw the route of its West Bank separation barrier near this Palestinian village that has come to symbolize opposition to the enclosure.
Pressure mounted, meanwhile, on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to strike hard in Gaza after a rocket hit near a nursery school, and scenes of screaming children and terrified parents were broadcast nationwide. On Tuesday, Vice Premier Haim Ramon, an Olmert confidant, proposed cutting off electricity, fuel and water to the coastal strip.
Residents of the village of Bilin went to court arguing that the current route of the separation barrier kept them from reaching their fields and orchards. Villagers and their Israeli and foreign supporters have protested at the barrier every Friday for the past 2 1/2 years, routinely sparring with police in clashes that have wounded dozens.
The Israeli government argued that the route was necessary to protect residents of the nearby settlement of Modiin Illit, and completed the section near Bilin.
A three-judge Supreme Court panel unanimously rejected the government's argument Tuesday, ordering defense planners to change the barrier's route to cause less harm to village residents.
"We were not convinced that it is necessary for security-military reasons to retain the current route that passes on Bilin's lands," Chief Justice Dorit Beinish wrote.
The judges ordered the government to come up with a new route in a "reasonable period of time."
"We went to court, hired the best lawyers in Israel and we won," said Abdullah Abu Rahma, one of the leaders of the weekly protest. He vowed that villagers would keep fighting until the fence was moved entirely off Bilin's land.
Elated villagers poured out of homes and schools and headed toward the fence, where several army jeeps gathered as the crowd began to swell. "They demolished the Berlin Wall, we want to demolish the Bilin wall," they chanted. Men waving Palestinian flags burst into a traditional Arab dance. "Soldiers, go home," shouted several who were ordered to climb down from a gate in the barrier.
The Israeli Defense Ministry, which has overseen construction of the barrier, said in a statement that it would "study the ruling and respect it."
Israel's Supreme Court has made several such rulings in the past, ordering authorities to move the fence in several parts of the West Bank.
Israel began building the 425-mile barrier - a combination of concrete walls, fences, trenches and patrol roads - along the West Bank in 2002, saying it was a necessary weapon in its war against Palestinian suicide bombers. But the barrier juts into West Bank territory, provoking Palestinian claims that Israel is using security arguments to take land they want for an independent state.
In the West Bank, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas denounced militant rocket attacks on southern Israel from Gaza, where Islamic Hamas militants are in control.
"We condemn the launching of rockets from Gaza and other places because these actions harm peace and the peace process," he said at a news conference.
Ramon, the Israeli vice premier, said severing water, fuel and electrical supplies to impoverished Gaza would force Hamas to stop the daily rocket fire.
"We won't continue to supply oxygen (to Gaza) in the form of electricity, fuel and water when they are trying to kill our children," he told Army Radio.
Cutoffs would greatly disrupt life in Gaza, which relies heavily on Israel for electricity and water. But it would likely draw heavy international condemnation.
While Ramon is close to Olmert, government spokesman David Baker said the vice premier was voicing his own opinion.
On Monday, Olmert said he instructed the army "to destroy every Qassam rocket launcher and anyone who is involved in their launching." He is to convene his security Cabinet on Wednesday to discuss a response to the rocket attacks.
Tzahi Hanegbi, chairman of parliament's influential foreign affairs and defense committee, said Israel had "no choice" but to launch a broad military operation in Gaza "at some stage." But military officials said a large-scale operation wasn't expected soon because the army's top command opposes it.
Military leaders are reluctant to divert resources from the northern front in case tensions with Syria and Lebanese guerrillas reignite, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss sensitive security matters with the press.
What's more, past fighting in crowded Gaza has resulted in heavy Israeli and Palestinian civilian casualties.
Israel is likely to continue with its frequent airstrikes and brief ground incursions against rocket launchers. Last week, Israeli fire killed three Palestinian children playing in an area used by rocket squads.
Also Tuesday, Israel let more than 150 Palestinians stranded in Gaza cross through Israeli territory to reach jobs and studies in Egypt and other countries. It was the largest group of people to be allowed out since Israel sealed Gaza's borders in response to the Hamas takeover.
In the West Bank, Israeli forces shot an 8-year-old Palestinian boy in the head with a rubber-coated bullet, seriously wounding him, Palestinian hospital officials said. The army said troops operating in the area encountered rioters throwing rocks and fired rubber-coated bullets in response.
© 2007 Associated Press