Israel’s army has begun tearing down a section of the West Bank separation barrier near the village of Bilin, four years after the Israeli Supreme Court ordered them to do so.
The rerouting on Sunday marked a major victory for residents of the town and activists who have held weekly demonstrations at the site for years.
Not all activists were satisfied with the move, however, with many demanding that the structure be removed entirely from the village.
The Israeli Supreme Court had ordered the structure be torn down in 2007, after it rejected the military’s argument that the route was required to secure the nearby Modiin Illit settlement.
Colonel Saar Tsur, the regional Israeli brigade commander, said the military had begun taking apart a 3.2km stretch of the barrier and had replaced it with a 2.7km-long concrete wall adjacent to the settlement.
Tsur said that the new route gave the military less response time in case of any unauthorised crossings.
"This is a new threat but we can handle it," he said. Tsur said that work would be complete on the project by the end of the week.
Carter and Tutu
Bilin had lost half its land after the erection of the barrier, and the weekly protests in the village frequently turned into clashes between activists and Israeli troops.
Israel said that it built the barrier in late 2002 to keep out Palestinian attackers, after a wave of suicide bombings hit its cities.
The barrier, however, juts into the West Bank, and critics say that the route of the fence is designed to take over land that Palestinians say is part of their state.
When completed, the barrier is projected to take over between six and eight per cent of the West Bank.
Tsur said that the new route will put about 140 acres back into Palestinian hands. He said the total cost of the project is $9m, with the military allocating $1.4m for the rehabilitation of farmland in the area.
"During the project, the Israel Defence Force relocated and replanted tens of Palestinian olive trees in order to protect them during the industrial works," a military statement said.
The weekly protests on Friday at the farming village attracted several well-known international figures over the years, including Nobel Peace Prize laureates Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu.
Two Palestinians have died and hundreds of others have been wounded since the protests began in 2005.
Tsur termed the protests acts of violence, saying that he doubted that the rerouting of the barrier would lead to their cessation.
On Friday, activists had tried to use bulldozers to tear down the fence before the army began its project.
"We are going to continue until we get all our rights. This barrier isn’t for security. It’s to steal land and build settlements," said Rani Burnat, a 30-year-old resident paralysed in a separate demonstration 10 years ago.
(Agencies via Al Jazeera)