Crossing the line

February 23, 2004|By Jessica Montell

JERUSALEM -- An unprecedented number of states have submitted materials to the International Court of Justice in The Hague regarding today's hearing on Israel's separation barrier.

Many of Israel's friends, even those who have voiced concerns about the barrier, have submitted briefs to the court arguing that the topic is not appropriate for judicial scrutiny, and should instead be left for diplomatic channels. This is Israel's position as well. Yet given that Israel has ignored the barrier's human rights implications, it is appropriate that the international community conduct a legal and not just a political reckoning.

The barrier is a political issue, but with legal ramifications. As the occupying power in the West Bank, Israel has a legal obligation to ensure the Palestinians' welfare. The occupier has the right to undertake security measures, but such measures must minimize harm to the protected population. Israel does not appear to have taken such care with regard to the separation barrier.

Undoubtedly, Israel faces security problems. Regardless of how we have reached the current situation, and who is to blame, Israel must protect its citizens from suicide bombings and other indiscriminate attacks, which constitute war crimes. On this basis, Israel justifies building this massive complex of fences, trenches, walls and patrol roads to prevent Palestinians from entering Israel. However, the route Israel has chosen for this barrier turns a legitimate security measure into a land grab.

Rather than following the Green Line, the pre-1967 border between Israel and the West Bank, the barrier extends deep into the West Bank. The approved plan encircles 16 percent of the land and over 250,000 Palestinians in enclaves, surrounded by walls and fences. Hundreds of thousands of farmers will be separated from their farmlands.

Since the barrier's purpose is to prevent Palestinians from crossing into Israel, it should not be surprising that it will severely impede Palestinians' access to hospitals, jobs, schools and agricultural land on the barrier's other side. While Israel has erected about 40 gates along the currently operational part of the barrier, all passage requires special permits.

Israel's permit system is a highly arbitrary and nontransparent bureaucracy. Permits are denied without explanation or withheld to pressure Palestinians to serve as collaborators or to collectively punish a particular village for attacks against Israelis. In the northern West Bank, farmers who cannot get permits are watching their produce wither and die.

In addition, all permits are canceled whenever Israel declares a general closure on the West Bank. For example, for two weeks during the olive harvest last fall, all gates granting farmers access to their lands were closed.

But perhaps this route is genuinely necessary to protect Israelis? If so, Palestinian hardships may be an unfortunate, but a legitimate price to pay to save lives. In fact, Palestinian suffering is unnecessary. Israel could prevent access to its territory while avoiding virtually all of the hardships to Palestinians by building the barrier along the Green Line. A military official involved in the barrier project recently told me that no section of the barrier can be justified solely in security terms. Despite the lofty rhetoric about saving lives, a primary factor determining the route is the desire to include as many settlements as possible west of the barrier in order to ensure their future annexation to Israel.

Responding to international concerns, Israel has made some welcome changes to the route, yet problems abound. In East Jerusalem, for example, crews work around the clock to complete a 25-foot-high wall through the middle of a busy neighborhood, cutting off access to relatives, schools, jobs and hospitals. Rather than separating Israelis from Palestinians, the barrier will separate Palestinians from Palestinians, with 200,000 Palestinians west of the barrier in Jerusalem alone.

None of this will bring security to me and my family in Jerusalem.

This makes it all the more infuriating to watch my government manipulate legitimate security concerns in order to advance a political agenda. It is not in anyone's interest -- not Israelis, not Palestinians and not the international community -- to advance a diplomatic process that ignores international law. The international community must continue to insist that Israel has the right to construct a barrier, provided it does so within its own territory.

Jessica Montell is the executive director of B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.

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