JERUSALEM - The Israeli Supreme Court ordered a temporary halt yesterday to construction of a section of the barrier that Israel is building in the West Bank after opponents argued that it would encircle thousands of Palestinians who live in a group of villages outside Jerusalem.
After issuing its order, the court said it would hear petitions filed by eight Palestinian villages next week before ruling whether construction could continue.
The village of Biddo and surrounding areas have been the scene of recent clashes between protesters and Israeli soldiers. Two demonstrators were killed last week after Israeli soldiers opened fire on rock throwers protesting the barrier.
Palestinians say the barrier would enclose their villages, separating them from larger centers, such as Jerusalem and Ramallah.
The barrier "will surround these village on all sides, meaning that these villages will become an enclave," said Muhammad Dahleh, an attorney for the villagers. "This is illegal. You cannot overnight convert people from free people in their homeland to prisoners."
Dahleh said the petition, filed Thursday, was joined by some residents of a neighboring Israeli community who also opposed the barrier's snaking route.
A spokesman for Israel's justice ministry, Jacob Galanti, played down the ruling, saying it was "a temporary step that gives the court time to discuss the matter and gives the Palestinians who approached the court a chance to have a hearing."
Israel maintains that the 452-mile-long barrier - an amalgam of chain-link fences, concrete barriers, trenches and patrol roads - is needed to keep suicide bombers from entering Israel to carry out attacks. Palestinians say it will cut off thousands of West Bank residents from their fields and amounts to Israel seizing land on which they hope to build a state.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz lashed out at the court injunction, saying that such delays would give militants more time to plan and carry out attacks.
The court is already weighing a challenge to the barrier that was lodged by human rights groups. Israel has said it is considering ways to shorten the barrier's route to reduce hardships on Palestinians but so far has begun dismantling only one five-mile section in the northern part of the West Bank.
The International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, held hearings last week on the legality of the barrier. The Palestinians argued their case and were joined by 12 countries and international organizations. Israel did not appear, saying the court had no jurisdiction to rule on the matter. Israel contends that the issue belongs on the negotiating table.
In other developments yesterday, two Palestinians were fatally shot by Israeli soldiers in the Balata refugee camp in Nablus. Both were activists in Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.
One of the men, Muhammad Owei, was killed during a shootout with soldiers yesterday morning. A few hours later, the second man, Riad Abu Shalal, was killed in a clash during Owei's funeral.
Also, yesterday, Israeli police closed the crossing between the Gaza Strip and Israel, and remained on alert after vows by Palestinian militants to avenge an Israeli airstrike Saturday that killed three members of the Islamic Jihad militant group.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.