The Israeli military has begun rerouting a hotly disputed section of the West Bank security barrier, marking a victory for Palestinians who fought for five years to win back access to their land, officials said Thursday.
The move comes nearly 2 1/2 years after the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the fence improperly cut through the Palestinian village of Bilin in order to enlarge a nearby Jewish settlement.
Bilin leaders celebrated the arrival of work crews Thursday but said they would continue to protest until the barrier was completely removed.
After the barrier is shifted, expected to be completed this year, about 170 acres of vineyards, olive and almond trees and other agricultural land will be accessible again to Palestinian owners. But villagers say the barrier and nearby Jewish settlements still occupy about 400 acres of land they once held.
"Even getting back one inch is an accomplishment," said Iyad Burnat, a resident of Bilin and a member of the Bilin Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements. "But the wall is still being built on our land, and even the new route will cut down more of our trees. We are going to continue our fight against the wall until we move it all the way back to the 1967 line" that marked Israel's border before it occupied the West Bank during the 1967 Middle East War.
Israeli officials said the delay in implementing the 2007 court ruling was because of subsequent legal disputes with Bilin leaders over the path of the new route.
"Every time we drew a new line we had to wait three months to give time for Palestinians to object," said Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman Shlomo Dror.
He said both sides agreed on the new line late last year. The new stretch, costing about $6 million, will cancel plans for a 200-unit apartment complex in the Orthodox Jewish settlement of Modiin Illit, Dror said.
Bilin has long been a focal point of Palestinian opposition to Israel's planned 490-mile barrier, which the government began building in 2002.
Israeli officials say the barrier -- a string of concrete walls, electronic fences and trenches -- has proved effective at stemming violence and suicide attacks. Palestinians view the barrier as an illegal land grab of disputed territory.
Bilin activists have held near-weekly protests against the barrier. Most of the demonstrations have been nonviolent, but some have ended with stone-throwing, tear gas and clashes with Israeli soldiers.
Hagit Ofran, director of the Settlement Watch project of the Israeli advocacy group Peace Now, said the government's delay in enforcing the court ruling was partly a "matter of pride."
"By changing it, they had to admit they lost."
Ofran said Bilin's victory would serve as an encouragement to other nonviolent Palestinian protesters.
Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.