(photo credit: AP [file])
An Israeli Arab lawyer representing Palestinian villages and the town of El-Khader in the vicinity of Gush Etzion on Sunday blasted the High Court of Justice for allegedly ignoring his request for another hearing before it decides whether to approve the government's proposal for the separation barrier in that area.
"Since the hearing on the petition was held in July, the court has received a flood of briefs and summations from the petitioners, the state and any number of other factors who wanted to express an opinion on the matter," attorney Nassir Ghiath, told The Jerusalem Post. "But the court does not want to convene another hearing. I'm afraid that it is planning a fait accompli."
According to Ghiath, the planned barrier surrounding Gush Etzion is quantitatively and qualitatively different from any other section of the barrier. It will place 65,000 to 70,000 dunams of West Bank land, almost half of it belonging to Palestinian farmers, on the "Israeli" side of the separation fence. It will essentially trap almost 20,000 Palestinians living in four villages and El-Khader on the "Israeli" side of the fence, and make it difficult for them to maintain their educational, economic, social and cultural ties with the West Bank. It will also cut farmers off from large tracts of land on the West Bank side of the fence.
Despite the unique scale of the Gush Etzion barrier, there has been almost no discussion of the issue either in the High Court or in the media. According to Ghiath, the court has only discussed his petition once, on July 26. From Jerusalem Post records, however, it appears that a preliminary discussion was held on June 15.
What is certain is that since July 26, the case has been conducted in silence, via the written briefs submitted by various interested parties to the High Court of Justice.
From a conceptual point of view, the arguments for a security fence to include a large portion of the Gush Etzion bloc also differ from those justifying the route of the barrier anywhere else along the seam line. In principle, the separation barrier extending into the West Bank is meant to protect individual Jewish settlements and link them to Israel. In Gush Etzion, however, the separation fence is meant to protect nine towns and villages, plus the haredi town of Betar Illit, as a single entity. The barrier is meant to protect not only each community, but the roads linking them to each other, enabling them to maintain a communal educational, social and cultural life.
In addition to Betar Illit, which has a population of more than 30,000, the barrier will surround Efrat, Alon Shvut, Kfar Etzion, Neveh Daniel, Gva'ot, Bat Ayin, Migdal Oz, Rosh Tzurim and Elazar. Several other settlements that belong to the Gush Etzion regional council, including Tekoa and Nokdim, are not included within the barrier. The population of the Jewish communities other than Betar Illit within the barrier is between 15,000 to 20,000.
The barrier also includes the Palestinian communities of Nahalin, Wadi Fukin, Husan, Jaba and Batir. Ghiath represents these communities plus several others located in the West Bank that have close ties to them. The population of these five Palestinian communities is approximately 20,000.
In addition to arguing that the barrier must protect the communal aspect of Gush Etzion, the state also maintains that it must protect the road system linking Gush Etzion and Betar Illit to Highway 60, which links Gush Etzion to Jerusalem and Hebron.
But the definition of Gush Etzion as including Betar Illit is a controversial one at best, according to Ghiath. Betar Illit is a city with its own municipal council. Thus, it does not administratively belong to the Gush Etzion Regional Council.
It is also not an integral part of the educational and cultural life of the bloc, which is religious-nationalist and modern in its outlook. Furthermore, Betar Illit is situated close to the Green Line and is linked by highway to Jerusalem via Tzur Hadassah. Leaving Betar Illit out of the equation means that what is really involved is the interests of roughly 20,000 Israelis versus the same number of Palestinians. These figures are important in considering the "proportionality" of the barrier's route, according to Ghiath.
In the meantime, the Council for Peace and Security, acting as "a friend of the court," has suggested a compromise proposal whereby almost half of the 65,000-70,000 dunams currently included within the fence, four of the five Palestinian communities and a large part of its agricultural land will be excluded from Gush Etzion and continue to be physically part of the West Bank, with an unobstructed connection to Bethlehem and Beit Jala. The barrier will be erected at the edge of the northernmost settlements of Gush Etzion, but south of Nahalin and the Palestinian villages.
According to this proposal, Betar Illit will continue to be connected to national Highway 60 by Route 375, a regional road situated within Gush Etzion. According to the council's plan, Route 375 will now be situated close to the separation fence instead of in the middle of the bloc, as it is in the government proposal. Furthermore, part of Highway 60, between Efrat and the approach to Jerusalem will run through Palestinian Authority territory. It will be surrounded by a concrete fence on both sides as well as other security measures.
In response to the proposal by the Council for Peace and Security, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Peled prepared an expert opinion on behalf of the Gush Etzion Regional Council and the town of Efrat, which sought to refute the council's proposal and essentially backed the government's plan.
The government, for its part, has asked the High Court to reject Ghiath's request for another hearing. In a brief filed last month in court, the state's representatives, attorneys Osnat Mandel, Aner Helman and Gilad Shirma, wrote that the court had all the facts it needed to rule on the petitions and that the court had already issued a show-cause order in the case, before the July 26 hearing. It urged the court to hand down its ruling as quickly as possible.