U.N. Court Rejects West Bank Barrier
Israel Says Security Fence Will Stay
By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 10, 2004; Page A01
PARIS, July 9 -- The International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled Friday that the security barrier being constructed by Israel in the West Bank is illegal, violates the human rights of Palestinians and must be dismantled.
In a nonbinding advisory opinion, the court rejected Israel's contention that the barrier was essential for its security. It ruled that Palestinians whose land has been confiscated for the 450-mile barrier should be compensated and called on countries not to help Israel build the fence.
"Israel is under an obligation to cease forthwith the works of construction of the wall being built in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including in and around East Jerusalem, to dismantle forthwith the structure therein situated," the court said.
The Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, called the ruling "a victory for the Palestinian people, adding, "We salute this decision condemning the racist wall."
Israel's deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said the fence would not be removed. "It's certainly unpleasant to have the ruling, but it's more unpleasant to have suicide attacks from territories not defended by the fence," he said. "The fence is probably uncomfortable and inconvenient for the Palestinians who live alongside of it, but it doesn't kill. The fence is removable and reversible, and death is not."
The court ruled 14 to 1 against the fence, with the American judge, Thomas Buergenthal, siding with Israel. On a separate question -- whether countries should withhold aid and support for the barrier project -- the court was split 13 to 2. A Dutch judge, Pieter H. Kooijmans, joined Buergenthal in dissenting from the majority view, which called on countries "not to render aid or assistance in maintaining the situation created" by the wall.
Palestinian legal advisers said they would seek clarification on what the judges meant by "aid or assistance" and whether the ruling amounted to a call for sanctions against Israel.
Although the ruling, which was requested by the U.N. General Assembly, is nonbinding, the court's opinions carry moral and political weight. Past decisions have been used to pressure governments in the court of public opinion, such as a ruling in 1971 against South Africa's occupation of Namibia, which led to Namibia's independence and fueled an economic boycott against South Africa's white-minority government.
Israeli officials have argued that the fence is necessary to prevent Palestinian suicide bombers from entering Israel from the West Bank, and they point to the dramatic drop in suicide attacks in the 18 months that the wall has been under construction. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who first conceived of the wall, has called it a temporary solution to Palestinian attacks.
But Palestinians have denounced the barrier, which cuts deep into West Bank territory to encompass Jewish settlements, as an attempt by Israel to grab Palestinian land. Palestinians also say the construction project has hindered attempts to negotiate a solution to the long-running Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
The barrier project, which is projected to cost $1.7 billion, is actually a series of barbed wire and electronic fences, ditches and huge concrete slabs in some places. About 120 of its 447 miles have been built.
The Israeli Supreme Court ruled last week that a portion of the barrier had to be rerouted because it was causing undue hardship to Palestinians by cutting them off from their farms, schools and hospitals. Although that decision concerned only one small section of the wall north of Jerusalem, it established the principle that Israeli security needs had to be balanced against the suffering caused to Palestinians.
The International Court said in its ruling, however, that it was "not convinced that the specific course Israel has chosen for the wall was necessary to attain its security objectives."
"The wall, along its route chosen, gravely infringes a number of rights of Palestinians residing in the territory occupied by Israel, and the infringements resulting from that route cannot be justified by military exigencies or by the requirements of national security or public order," the court said.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company