Israel's top court has given the government two months to explain why it has not proposed an alternative route for the West Bank barrier in a valley near Jerusalem.
The decision, handed down by the High Court Monday, relates to an appeal by Palestinian residents of Beit Jala, who say the proposed route will separate them from their olive groves and divide the local Christian community.
The residents say that if the defence ministry insists on building through the middle of the Cremisan Valley, it would mean 58 families losing their land and would split the Roman Catholic Salesian order's properties, leaving a monastery on the Israeli side and a convent on the Palestinian side.
The land in question is a valley between the sprawling settlement neighbourhood of Gilo in annexed east Jerusalem, and the smaller West Bank settlement of Har Gilo, just a few kilometres to the southwest.
At a hearing last week, the Council for Peace and Security, a group of former high-ranking security officials, proposed an alternative route for the barrier it said would save most of the villagers' land and better ensure Israel's security needs.
On Monday, the court ordered the defence ministry to explain in writing "why other alternatives to the route of the fence were not examined... and why an alternative route had not been adopted."
It also asked why four seizure orders relating to Palestinian land in the Cremisan Valley had not been cancelled.
The ministry has until April 10 to respond in writing.
If the barrier is built along the route proposed by the ministry, the villagers and the Salesian order stand to lose 3000 dunams (300 hectares/741 acres) of land, 700 of which belongs to the church.
But if it follows the route proposed by the Council for Peace and Security, no land will be seized, figures from St Yves Catholic rights group show.
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"The court’s decision is an indication that it is not inclined to adopt the state’s position," said a statement from Zvi Avni, legal council for St Yves, which represents the Salesian convent and its school.
"We definitely have new hope – the answer of the court is a good sign."
Fear ancient terracing will be destroyed
The same court is considering a separate appeal against the barrier's route lodged by residents of the nearby Palestinian village of Battir, who say it will destroy its ancient terraces and a Roman-era irrigation system.
On Sunday, the court ordered Israel Railways and the defence ministry to look into the possibility of removing one of the two railway tracks that run just under Battir as a potential alternative route for the barrier.
"Removing one of the tracks which runs closest to the village would allow the fence to be moved... by a few metres. Thus, there would be no need to damage the lowest terrace," the court said, giving Israel Railways until February 27 to respond.
Friends of the Earth Middle East said the court appeared to be "extremely reluctant to let the military remove a single stone terrace."
"FoEME believes, supported by expert opinion, that due to the topography of the area, it is not possible to build the type of physical structure that the military is proposing without destroying several hundred meters of ancient stone terrace walls," it said.
Israel began building the barrier in 2002 at the height of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, arguing that its construction was crucial for security. But the Palestinians see it as a land grab aimed at stealing part of their future state.
UN figures show that Israel has already built around two-thirds of the barrier -- a network of towering concrete walls, barbed-wire fences, trenches, and closed military roads that will extend 712 kilometres (442-miles) when completed.
Only 15 percent of the barrier follows the Green Line, which is recognised by the international community as the border of Israel proper, with the rest inside the West Bank.
In 2004, the International Court of Justice ruled that parts of the barrier were illegal and should be torn down. But the defence ministry insists the route is determined by "specific security considerations" of the area.