UN assembly debates West Bank wall

By Reuters, July 16 2004 - 07.56


(Reuters) - The U.N. General Assembly takes up on Friday a draft resolution demanding that Israel obey a World Court ruling and tear down its West Bank wall, but diplomats say a vote may not come until next week.

Arab states want broad support for the resolution drafted by Palestinian U.N. observer Nasser al-Kidwa. But officials of the 25-nation European Union are unhappy with the text as now written and will not be pushed into a decision.

Al-Kidwa and other Arab envoys have been meeting all week with diplomats from the Netherlands, the current EU president, to discuss what changes Europe would need to vote "yes" in Friday's emergency session of the 191-nation assembly.

But it took EU delegates until Thursday afternoon to reach consensus within their own ranks on a common list of demands. That paper was sent off to EU capitals for overnight approval.

"We will not be rushed. So it's not realistic to expect a vote on Friday," said a key EU diplomat involved in the talks.

Arab envoys have painted the vote as a referendum on the force of international law, while Israel and its chief ally, the United States, argue that the World Court, known formally as the International Court of Justice, ignored legitimate Israeli security concerns and was undermining the peace process.

Israel says the wall -- a combination of razor-tipped fencing and concret e that is still under construction -- is temporary and is needed to keep out suicide bombers.

Palestinians see it as a land grab that would thwart their dream of a Palestinian state.

Even without the EU, U.N. diplomats said the Palestinian resolution would easily win a majority of those voting.

But Arab states hoped to keep abstentions and "no" votes to a minimum, to bolster an expected later plea for sanctions against Israel in case the Jewish state ignores the ruling, as it has vowed to do, on grounds it is only an advisory opinion.

In addition, the EU bloc would bring along with it as many as 25 other countries, diplomats said.

"It's all about the EU, which is considered the moral compass at the United Nations," said an envoy close to the talks. "When the Palestinians attract primarily Arab and African votes, they don't regard this as a victory."

The U.N. assembly agreed to meet after the court, the top U.N. legal forum, said in an "advisory opinion" last week that the p lanned 370-mile (600-km) barrier violates international law by cutting into West Bank land occupied and dotted with settlements by Israel since the 1967 Middle East War.

The Palestinian draft would affirm "the illegality of any territorial acquisition resulting from the threat or use of force" and would demand that Israel dismantle the wall and pay reparations for any damages caused by its construction.

It would also ask Switzerland, as keeper of the Fourth Geneva Convention, to convene a meeting of parties to the treaty to ensure it was being observed.

The 1949 pact deals with the protection of civilians in time of war. A key provision bars governments from building settlements on land acquired by force.

EU diplomats want the draft to cite Israeli security needs and the obligations of both sides under the road map to peace set out by the quartet of Middle East mediators -- the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia.