Israeli Court Orders Assessment of West Bank Barrier

By STEVEN ERLANGER

The New York Times

August 20, 2004

JERUSALEM, Aug. 19 - The Israeli Supreme Court on Thursday ordered the government to produce a statement in the next 30 days assessing the ramifications of a nonbinding ruling of the International Court of Justice in The Hague that declared the Israeli security barrier around the West Bank to be illegal.

The ruling was a response to a petition by residents of the West Bank village of Shukba, near the Tel Aviv international airport. The residents are challenging the expropriation of land by the government to build the barrier, in places a high concrete wall, which Israel says is needed for security against suicide bombers.

The Israeli Supreme Court ruled in late June that the barrier was legal, whether built on land inside Israel's 1967 borders or outside. But it has ordered the route of the barrier altered where it impinges too much on the lives of Palestinian villagers or expropriates land unnecessarily.

The International Court of Justice, however, ruled a few days later that the building of the barrier anywhere beyond the 1967 borders, and thus in disputed territory, was against international law. In the Arab-Israeli war of June 1967, Israel captured East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights, and it has annexed parts of that land.

The Hague judgment has been supported by a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, but it is nonbinding. The Israeli government said it would ignore the international court's ruling, while abiding by the Israeli court's decisions. But the Israeli court is forcing the government to do something more than simply ignore the Hague ruling.

"At a certain point in time we will have to deal with the ruling of the World Court in The Hague, and the current petition is an appropriate opportunity to do so,'' said the chief justice, Aharon Barak.

Justices Barak, Eliahu Mazza and Mishael Cheshin accepted the argument of the petitioners that the government had to assess the implications of the Hague ruling.

A cabinet adviser, Raanan Gissin, said their order did not compel the government to abide by the Hague ruling, but simply to assess it.

"There are going to be many injunctions,'' he said. "We're a country ruled by law and litigated by law. We have to roll with the punches. That in no way requires us to abide by the Hague decision. The only decision we will abide by is the ruling of the Israeli court. They did not tell us to abide by the Hague decision. And we will come up with the statement they ask for."

But whether the government may have to do more than issue an assessment is unclear.

Ely Karmon, an analyst at the International Policy Center for Counter-Terrorism, said that even the ruling on Thursday would "give some wind to those who want the government to behave according to the ruling of the international court.''

He noted that the Israeli court had already stopped the building of the barrier "in some sensitive places for security, especially in Jerusalem,'' and noted that the security forces were preparing a new route for the barrier that would bring it closer to the 1967 border.

But the army and government have said that they want to invite members of the court to visit key sites, like the Gaza-Egypt border, to see the security value of the barrier.

In the southern Gaza town of Rafah on Thursday, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a 16-year-old Palestinian. The youth, Ahmed al-Hams, was killed while trying to tend to a wounded friend, aged 13, Palestinian medics said. An Israeli military spokesman said troops had opened fire on two Palestinians who were in a restricted area near a military post, where soldiers assumed that they were trying to plant a bomb. No explosive device was found.

Also on Thursday, five short-range Qassam rockets, the kind usually fired by Hamas militants, landed in the Israeli town of Sederot, wounding a 10-year-old boy, who was struck in the leg by a fragment.