Bomb shatters peace in Tel Aviv

1 killed, dozens wounded in blast near bus station

U.N. court ruling on wall decried

Israelis say attack shows need for security barrier

July 12, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - The day before the International Court of Justice held hearings in February on the separation barrier Israel is building in the West Bank, a Palestinian suicide bomber blew up a bus in Jerusalem and killed eight passengers.

Yesterday, two days after the Hague court ruled that the barrier violates international law and should be torn down, a bomb exploded near Tel Aviv's central bus station, killing a 19-year-old female soldier and wounding more than two dozen.

For many Israelis, the court's decision in the Netherlands reinforced their belief that the world does not care about their plight and has now sanctioned Palestinian attacks that the planned 425-mile barrier is designed to stop.

The blast was the first successful bombing in Israel since March - a relative lull in attacks by Palestinian militants that Israeli officials attribute partly to the barrier.

"What the judges refused to see, the Palestinians quickly showed them this morning - murder and the wounding of innocent civilians," Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said at the start of yesterday's weekly Cabinet meeting. "The decision sends a destructive message to encourage the terror and denounces countries that are defending themselves against it."

Israeli officials, meanwhile, expressed surprise at the scope of the court's advisory ruling, which is not legally binding. The judges held that the security barrier is illegal because much of it cuts through the West Bank - which they referred to as "occupied," rather than Israel's preferred "disputed" - separating Palestinians from their land and villages.

Court ruling criticized

Israeli leaders expected to lose the case, but said they were unprepared for such a sweeping condemnation of their presence in the West Bank, criticism of Jewish settlements and the near-total rejection of the threat their nation faces from suicide bombings and other attacks.

The court ruled hours before the Sabbath began Friday evening, and yesterday was the first opportunity for Israel's news media to weigh in on the debate, and the first chance for politicians to offer more than cursory comments.

Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the court's ruling "a farce" and said the judges, "instead of dismantling the fence, should have dismantled the terror organizations."

Shimon Peres, leader of the opposition left-of-center Labor Party, complained that the court "ignored the fact that the right to stay alive is a basic human right."

Sharon met yesterday with Justice Minister Joseph Lapid and his foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, to discuss the implications of the ruling and to formulate a strategy if the United Nations General Assembly addresses the barrier this week.

Israeli officials said they are confident they can avert sanctions with the help of U.S. vetoes, but they acknowledged yesterday that a tough public relations battle lies ahead.

They vowed not to tear down a single section of the barrier, but said future sections might have to be built on or nearer the divide between Israel and the West Bank, known as the Green Line. They also expressed concern that the decision could prompt hundreds, if not thousands, of lawsuits.

`On legal ground'

Azmi Bishara, an Arab citizen of Israel and a member of its parliament, said the Palestinians got more than they had hoped for from the judges.

"They did not speak of two sides," he said in an interview yesterday. "They used language we have not heard before from diplomats who want to create a symmetry between the occupier and the occupied."

Bishara, along with a dozen other activists and Palestinian politicians, ended a weeklong hunger strike and protest yesterday in the northern Jerusalem neighborhood of A-Ram, where Israeli contractors are building another section of the barrier.

The lawmaker said the U.N. Security Council "has a job to prevent Israel from building this wall" and implored the United States not to exercise its veto power.

"It would be said that the only superpower in the world votes against the highest legal institution in the world," Bishara said. "Our campaign will not stop with an American veto. We are not only on moral ground now, but on legal ground."

Palestinian Authority Cabinet ministers decided yesterday to hold off on seeking a U.N. Security Council resolution until after U.S. elections in November, in hopes that there would be less internal political pressure to veto the measure.

Last month, Israel's Supreme Court ruled that part of the barrier illegally harms Palestinians and ordered changes in the route. But the Israeli judges said the barrier is justified as a security measure, and Israeli leaders point to that ruling as proof that Israel can police itself without outside intervention.

Even some proponents of the barrier say the route, which dips deep into the West Bank to encompass Jewish settlements - resembles a de facto political boundary drawn outside the scope of negotiations. This, they say, left Israel vulnerable to the world court.

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