Opinion goes against Israel on building of wall

West Bank construction should stop, restitution be paid, world court says

July 10, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - The International Court of Justice ruled in an advisory opinion yesterday that Israel should stop building its barrier in the West Bank, tear down portions already constructed and pay restitution to Palestinians for confiscated land and ruined farm crops.

The court's president, Judge Shi Jiuyong of China, spent more than two hours reading the ruling aloud, concluding that the construction was "contrary to international law."

"Israel is under an obligation to terminate its breach of international law, and under obligation to cease forthwith the construction of the wall being built in the occupied Palestinian territory," the court said.

Not legally binding

The decision by the world court, in The Hague, Netherlands, is not legally binding, but it carries moral and political implications and could prompt the United Nations General Assembly and the Security Council to consider economic sanctions against Israel.

Palestinian officials hailed the decision as historic, and said Israel should be considered an "outlaw state." They said they would call for an emergency session of the U.N. General Assembly to discuss the barrier.

Israeli leaders condemned the ruling, saying that the court had no jurisdiction to consider a political dispute, and that the judges ignored Israel's right to defend its citizens from Palestinian suicide bombers.

Those officials said that Israel would probably continue building the barrier - a combination of fences, concrete walls, ditches and barbed wire. When completed, it will stretch more than 400 miles.

"The opinion fails to address the essence of the problem and the very reason for building the fence - Palestinian terror," said Jonathan Peled, a Foreign Ministry spokesman. "If there were no terror, there would be no fence."

White House reaction

A White House spokesman also criticized the decision. The United States, along with the European Union, had urged the court not to take on the case because any rule could harm the long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The court's decision came nine days after Israel's Supreme Court ruled that part of the barrier illegally harms Palestinians and ordered authorities to reroute part of the fence. It has subsequently ordered changes in additional areas.

But unlike the world court, the Israeli court held that the government had a right as an occupying power to build the barrier on disputed land as a deterrent against militant attacks. It said that builders must ensure "minimal harm" to Palestinians.

About 125 miles of the barrier have been completed, mostly in the country's center and north and around parts of Jerusalem. It cuts through Palestinian property and in some cases separates people from their schools, jobs and land.

The world court began hearings on the barrier in February at the behest of Palestinians and Arab states. The General Assembly asked the 15-member court to render a legal opinion. Only one judge, Thomas Buergenthal of the United States, dissented. The majority rejected claims that the court had no jurisdiction to hear the case.

"Israel is under an obligation to cease forthwith the works of construction of the wall and to dismantle forthwith the structure therein situated," the court concluded, adding that it was "not convinced that the specific course Israel has chosen for the wall was necessary to attain its security objectives."

"The wall, along the route chosen, gravely infringes a number of rights of Palestinians residing in the territory occupied by Israel," the ruling said, "and the infringements resulting from that route cannot be justified by military exigencies or by the requirements of national security or public order."

The court also ruled that the fence constitutes a political, not a security border.

Palestinian reaction

Michael Tarazi, a legal adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization, said in a telephone interview from The Hague that the ruling should lead to international action against Israel.

"We have laws," he said. "We have courts. What's the use if you don't enforce the rulings against rogue states, which is what Israel has been declared today? This is a real bolstering for Palestinian moderates who have long argued that violence is not the way to victory," Tarazi continued. "If the international community sends a message that this can be ignored, it only enforces the extremists who prey on the fact that most Palestinians feel abandoned."

An Israeli government statement said the case was an attempt by Palestinians "to hijack yet another respected international body for political gain. It is absurd that the victim of terror has been in effect put on trial."

The Foreign Ministry distributed statistics yesterday showing a 90 percent drop in militant attacks in areas where the fence is completed, and said that casualty numbers have been cut by more than 70 percent. More than 900 Israelis have been killed and thousands injured in more than 20,000 attacks since the conflict erupted nearly four years ago.

"No other country would act differently in the face of such an evil campaign," said Peled, the Foreign Ministry spokesman. "The fence works. It is a temporary, nonviolent security measure, and it saves lives."

He said Israeli leaders would seek a "balance between protecting the lives of its citizens and the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian population."

That would be done in accordance to directives from Israel's court system, which he said "alone has the capacity to fully address all aspects of this matter. The fact that every individual affected by the fence has the right to directly petition Israel's Supreme Court ensures legal recourse without the need for outside involvement."

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