BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- Israel's Supreme Court on Monday ordered the Israeli state to justify the route of the separation wall in Beit Jala's Cremisan valley in an apparent indication that the proposed land seizure could be canceled.
Fifty-eight landowners, together with the Salesian convent and monastery, have battled for eight years against a 2006 Israeli military order to build the separation wall around Beit Jala and the illegal Gilo settlement.
On Monday, Israel's Supreme Court issued a preliminary order giving the Israeli state until April 10 to justify why it could not alter the proposed route of the wall, which as planned would split the Salesian community, annex the Cremisan valley to Israel and seize land from local Beit Jala residents.
The court ordered that all construction on the separation wall be halted until the Israeli state responds to the request.
"If you look at where we started from when we entered the court with little hope for anything and now we have the situation where they have to justify the wall, it looks very promising," Anica Heinlein, an advocacy officer for the Society of St. Yves, which represents the nuns, told Ma'an.
The Israeli Supreme Court set a new hearing for July 30 to discuss the answer of the Israeli state and responses to it by Beit Jala residents.
St. Yves lawyer Zvi Avni said they are still some way from a final decision but the ruling shows that the Supreme Court found the case "convincing" and therefore asked the state to present its reasons for not abolishing the confiscation orders and not considering a route which would be less harmful to Beit Jala residents.
"The burden of proof is on them (the Israeli state) to say why they want to put this wall here and not on the other side (of the valley)," Avni told Ma'an.
International interest and the presence of church representatives and foreign diplomats at previous hearings has put pressure on the court, Avni said, which could explain the delay until July in issuing a ruling.
But also key to the potential success of the case was the testimony of former Israeli generals from the Council of Peace and Security who argued that the suggested route of the wall was unnecessary in security terms, Avni said.
The generals dismissed the Israeli state attorney's argument that the route of the wall was vital to prevent "terrorist" attacks on Gilo, such as shooting incidents in the past, and argued that an alternative route for the wall below the settlement would cause much less harm to Beit Jala residents while serving Israeli security needs.
They argued that the proposed route was about land confiscation and would in fact increase insecurity in the area due to the presence of Israeli soldiers at security gates, Avni said.
"We have always said that the real intention is to take over these lands," Avni told Ma'an. "If its so dangerous as you claim then why do you want to expand this neighborhood (Gilo)?"
Avni says it is premature to say how important the court decision is but that he doesn't expect any "new surprises" from Israel.
"We still have to see but there is a better chance that the community will stay with its lands," the lawyer said.
If the route of the wall goes ahead it will divide the Salesian religious community on either side and turn a place which once provided refuge to local residents into an "army camp," the lawyer says.
The wall would also annex the very last green spaces available to the local community and take away land farmed for generations in steep green plateaus.
The latest ruling, while not final, is certainly a good sign the Israeli court will rule in favor of local residents and the Salesian community to change the route of the wall, Anica Heinlein says.
"We went there with little hope, there was never no hope, and now it looks like we could win."