Wall in breach of the international law

Editorial

Financial Times

Published: July 11 2004

Yesterday's ruling by the International Court that Israel's West Bank barrier was contrary to international law was inevitable. How could the Hague court possibly have come to any ot her conclusion when the half-built wall is already, at several points, going deep into the West Bank to envelop Israel's settlements in the occupied territories that have been repeatedly declared illegal by the United Nations?

The real question now is whether the advisory, non-binding ruling is consequential. The court urged the UN General Assembly, which brought the case to The Hague, and the Security Council to take follow-up action. But any measures such as sanctions would be vetoed by the US which yesterday called the court ruling "inappropriate". On the other hand, Israel has to face the fact that it has now lost - in a rea l world court, not just in the amorphous court of world opinion - its case for walling off the Palestinians. The government of Ariel Sharon was quick yesterday to thumb its nose at The Hague. But the verdict might encourage a few more Americans to question the Bush administration's acquiescence in Mr Sharon's strategy of using the wall to tighten Israel's hold on the West Bank.

The court accepted Israel's right to protect itself, but not the "route chosen" for the wall or "its associated regime". The judges said Israel should compensate Palestinians for homes and land immediately lost or damaged by the building of the barrier. But the disruption goes far wider than this, with thousands of Palestinians being cut off from access to jobs, schools and hospitals. The court should have said that any wall should be kept within Israel's pre-1967 boundaries.

But the judges also queried whether the wall was an appropriate "safeguard" against Palestinian terrorism. Israel claims that the wall has reduced Pal estinian attacks. But any such decline in terrorist incidents may also be due to growing Palestinian debate over suicide bombings as well as Israel's (also controversial) policy of targeted assassinations.

Perhaps a few of the Hague judges' words will rub off on their counterparts in Israel's Supreme Court. The latter recently ordered the government to re-route a section of the wall to minimise the impact on local Palestinians. But this ruling had its limitations. While the Israeli judges said humanitarian considerations had to be balanced against security, they did not question Israel's right to requisition land. This case was special, too, in the sense that local Jews joined in the plea for re-routing, out of fear that desperation might drive their Palestinian neighbours to violence. Only when more Israelis are prepared to make that argument will things really change.

It should be increasingly clear, to all but the most gullible, that Mr Sharon has vaunted his plan to pull out of Gaza, where Jew ish settlements are militarily as well as morally indefensible, to give himself maximum political cover to tighten Israel's hold over the West Bank. Unfortunately, President George W. Bush and, as always by extension these days, Prime Minister Tony Blair, must be counted among the most gullible. In particular, Mr Bush has swallowed Mr Sharon's claim that the wall is temporary, and so will not prejudge that fabled "final settlement". As a result, Washington is no longer bothering to influence the wall's route.

It would be nice to imagine the Hague judges sounding their trumpets, like Joshua outside Jericho, and the wall falling down. This barrier may be in breach of the law, but there is still no sign of any real breach in the wall.