World Court Says Israeli Barrier Violates International Law

By CHRISTINE HAUSER

The New York Times

July 9, 2004

The International Court of Justice ruled today that it is against international law for Israel to build its barrier in the West Bank and that it should be dismantled.

The advisory ruling by the World Court, in the Hague, is nonbinding. But it contributes to the debate surrounding construction of the network of fencing and ditches on lands that have been the focus of Middle East peace efforts.

Israel says it is building the barrier as self-defense against attackers, but Palestinians call it an attempt to grab land.

A copy of the ruling, posted on the Web site www.electronicintifada.net before the court began its reading of the decision, said that the construction of the wall is "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," it said.

The Palestinian Authority, in a previous presentation to the court, had argued that the partly built barrier was a violation of international law and an attempt to annex Palestinian land.

"I think this is a historic decision," said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, today. "I think the message to Palestinians is that they should pursue the path of diplomacy, not violence, and that they don't stand alone.

"I really hope tonight that Israel will stop building the wall, and come back to the negotiating table," Mr. Erekat said. "And if they insist on building the wall, they should build it on their border and not in the heart of the West Bank."

Israel, which contends that the court lacks jurisdiction to rule in the matter, had filed a written brief to present its case.

Today Jonathan Peled, the spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry, said the advisory opinion "failed to address the essence of the problem and the very reason for building the fence —Palestinian terror. If there were no terror, there would be no fence."

Thomas Buergenthal, an American, was the only dissenter among the 15 judges, according to the copy of the ruling posted on the Internet.

The court opened a hearing in February on the barrier amid demonstrations by Palestinian supporters and a silent march by pro-Israeli organizations featuring photographs of nearly 1,000 victims of terrorism-related acts.

The United Nations General Assembly had asked the court for an opinion about the legal consequences of the barrier's construction after it voted in October to demand that Israel tear it down.

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan on Nov. 28 called its construction "a deeply counterproductive act" that was causing the Palestinian population "serious socio-economic harm."

President Bush, too, has expressed concern about the barrier. But today the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, told reporters that the administration did not believe the World Court was the appropriate forum to address what is a "political issue."

"This is an issue that should be resolved through the process that has been put in place, specifically the road map" peace plan, said Mr. McClellan, speaking aboard Air Force One en route to a campaign event in Pennsylvania.

"We certainly recognize the need for Israel to defend itself and protect the people of Israel. It's also important that they allow the Palestinian people to move freely within that region," he said, according to Reuters.

Today the European Commission again urged Israel to take it down.

The World Court, based in The Hague and created to settle legal disputes between nations, is not obligated to issue an opinion. But Arab nations worked for the resolution in the hope of increasing pressure on Israel over what they consider an illegal land grab.

Last month, Israel's Supreme Court ordered the army to remove a small portion of the barrier and to reroute other sections to reduce the harm imposed on Palestinians who were cut off from lands they need.

The court asserted that Israel has a genuine security reason for building the barrier and can expropriate land in the West Bank for it. But it said the army "has a legal duty to balance properly between security considerations and humanitarian ones."

"We will abide by the ruling of our own High Court and not the panel in The Hague, with judges from the European Union who are not suspected of being particularly disposed toward Israel," Yosef Lapid, Israel's justice minister, told army radio in remarks made before the court ruling was announced.

Palestinian groups and their supporters have held a series of demonstrations in recent days to coincide with the court ruling.

Azmi Bishara, an Arab Israeli who is a member of Israel's parliament, was in the seventh day of a hunger strike today. He has been carrying out his protest in northern Jerusalem, under a tent set up alongside a main road where Israel is building part of the barrier.

"Israel has tried to present the wall as a magic formula they can use to remove Palestinians from their lives," said Mr. Bishara. "This is nonsense, it won't work."The court decision shows that there is an inhuman side to the wall."

Israel says the barrier is intended to prevent suicide bombings and other Palestinian attacks, and that it goes into the West Bank to protect some Jewish settlements.

Israel also argues that Palestinian attacks have dropped dramatically since the wall began going up two years ago. There have been no deadly Palestinian bombings inside Israel's 1967 borders in almost four months, the longest such stretch since the Palestinian uprising began almost four years ago.

However, Palestinians say the barrier separates many West Bank residents from their farmland, schools and workplaces.

The Palestinian leadership says it does not want to see a barrier, regardless of the route, but that it cannot stop Israel from building it on the West Bank boundary.

According to Israeli officials, the route that has been approved by the government would stretch for more than 400 miles. About one-quarter has been completed, including a long stretch in the northern West Bank and sections around Jerusalem.

Part of the barrier runs along the West Bank frontier, though much of it dips inside that territory. According to United Nations calculations, the proposed barrier would put about 15 percent of the West Bank on the western, or Israeli side of the barrier.

The barrier includes a network of electronic fences, walls, barbed wire, trenches, and guard towers. A chain link fence would run along about 95 percent of the proposed route, and concrete walls would make up about 5 percent, according to Israeli officials.

Israel seized the West Bank, including east Jerusalem, from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war. More than 400,000 Israelis now live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

The Palestinian leadership is seeking all of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip for a future state, with a capital in east Jerusalem.

Greg Myre contributed reporting from Israel for this article