A panel of nine High Court justices held a final hearing on petitions protesting the construction of a separation wall virtually creating an island of five Palestinian villages in the middle of Israeli-controlled territory near Jerusalem.
The enclave, which is to be linked to the West Bank by two highways and one small road open a few hours each morning, includes the villages of Bir Naballah, Beit Hanina, El-Jib, Judira and Rafat, which have a total population of about 15,000.
The area is connected by one north-south road to Kalandiya and from there to the rest of the West Bank, and another, east-west road, still in the planning stages, which will link it to Beit Surik.
The High Court has issued several interim injunctions, particularly along the west side of the route, and the wall has not been completed in that area.
According to Col. (res.) Danny Tirza, who is in charge of the project, the wall is necessary to protect Givat Ze'ev, a town of about 11,000, and several small nearby settlements, and Route 436, which links the Jewish communities to Jerusalem. The heights of Nebi Samwil, also in the enclave, overlook the northern Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramot.
At one point during the hearing on Sunday, Supreme Court President Aharon Barak asked Muhammad Dahleh, the lawyer representing the villages, what he thought should be done. Dahleh was taken aback, but after thinking for a moment, replied that the wall should not be built and that the villages should remain part of the Jerusalem area.
Barak then asked Dahleh what the petitioners themselves wanted. "That's too complicated a question," he replied. "They prefer the option that does not include a fence."
Dahleh pointed out that in the government's original plan for northern Jerusalem in 2002, the villages were indeed included within Jerusalem. But the state's representative, Aner Hellman, said the government had already changed its mind by 2003, considering it too dangerous to give so many West Bank Palestinians access to Israel.
Barak then asked whether it would be possible to leave Givat Ze'ev and the other settlements along Route 436 on the West Bank side of the fence and declare it a special security zone, as it had done with the Jewish settlement of Tenne in the southern Hebron Hills.
Hellman replied that the situations were not similar because Givat Ze'ev was a far bigger community than Tenne and was also more spread out.
The Council for Peace and Security, which has served as a "Friend of the Court" in several petitions and has tried to moderate the injury to the Palestinians from the barrier, agreed with the state in this case that the barrier had to be built as planned to defend Givat Ze'ev and the other settlements.
Dahleh charged that all of the villages in the enclave had already lost much of their land to Israel for various reasons, including the construction of Neveh Ya'acov and Givat Ze'ev, and the system of highways built in the area to connect the settlements to each other and to Jerusalem.
Furthermore, as a result of the fence, land belonging to some of the villages, including 2,400 dunams (600 acres) of mostly agricultural land belonging to El-Jib, have ended up on the Israeli side of the wall.
Hellman said that the army will build "agricultural gates," open a certain number of hours per day, for farmers wishing to tend to their fields and orchards on the Israeli side. In the case of El-Jib, a special gate will open 24 hours a day to enable residents of a neighborhood on the other side to travel to El-Jib, and for farmers from El-Jib wishing to reach their lands. A road, open in the morning, will enable children from Beit Hanina village, located inside the enclave, to reach schools in the modern neighborhood of Beit Hanina, which is part of Jerusalem.
At the end of the hearing on the first petition, which lasted three-and-a-half hours, Hellman urged the court to hand down its ruling quickly. He said the fact that the court had issued interim injunctions preventing the government from building parts of the barrier had prevented it from completing the work.
"We ask the court to hand down its ruling quickly so that we can build the west side of the fence," said Hellman, in what sounded almost like a reprimand.