Rerouting Israel's fence

July 07, 2004

DOING RIGHT under the law doesn't necessarily make the job of securing the country easier. In fact, upholding the law may frustrate anti-terrorism efforts. But in a democracy, the rule of law must prevail and the government must abide by it.

That reasoning came not from the U.S. Supreme Court, but its counterpart in Israel, in a challenge to the path of a controversial security barrier dividing the Jewish state from Palestinians on its eastern front. While upholding Israel's right to protect itself against suicide bombers and the potent threat of terrorism, the Israeli high court courageously ordered a section of the fence changed because of its adverse impact on eight Palestinian villages.

We say courageous because the three-judge panel recognized that as Israeli citizens, they are not immune to the terrorist attacks that have killed thousands of their fellow citizens. Enhanced security would benefit them, too. Most Israelis support the fence.

FOR THE RECORD - In an editorial Wednesday on Israel's security barrier, the number of Israeli victims of terrorist attacks was incorrect. About 900 Israeli citizens have died and 6,000 have been injured in the present conflict. The Sun regrets the error.

But as judges in the Middle East's only democracy, their obligation was to uphold the law, even if that meant Israel would have to wage its fight against Palestinian suicide bombers "with one arm tied behind her back."

The issue before the Israeli court involved the lives and livelihoods of 35,000 Palestinians affected by a 20.5-mile section of the planned 437-mile fence. The judges decided that Israel's military didn't adequately weigh the human impact of the barrier against security needs when constructing this portion of the fence northwest of Jerusalem. And the law demands just such a balancing test.

The panel found not only that the Palestinian villagers would lose acres of land and access to work their fields and groves, but, more important, that "the fabric of life of the entire population" would be damaged by the mix of chain-link fences, razor wire, concrete walls, trenches and electronic surveillance equipment.

The court decision is a win for Palestinians who have faced undue hardships because of the location of the security fence. Although the court didn't address the penetration of the barrier into the West Bank (an inappropriate taking of vast swaths of land to protect Jewish settlements), the impact on Palestinians should be lessened. As Israel continues to build the fence, its planners will have to be more sensitive to the humanitarian plight of Palestinians on either side of the barrier.

But Palestinian villagers weren't the only winners in this legal battle. Unlike its autocratic neighbors in the region, Israel affords the dispossessed and disenfranchised a means to challenge the government through its system of jurisprudence. The Israeli Supreme Court's ruling strengthens Israeli democracy, which exists in all its cultural, religious and political complexities in a region hostile to its very existence, and ultimately protects society. As the court rightly observed, "there is no security without the law."

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