The International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled Friday that Israel's security fence being constructed on occupied West Bank land is illegal, violates the human rights of Palestinians and must be dismantled.
The wall "cannot be justified by military exigencies or by the requirements of national security or public order," said Judge Shi Jiuyong of China, who announced the non-binding ruling. "The construction of such a wall accordingly constitutes breaches by Israel of its obligations under the applicable international humanitarian law."
The court is also expected to order that Palestinians whose land had been confiscated for the building of the barrier should be compensated, and it will call on countries not to give aid or support to Israel in building the fence.
The ruling was 14 to 1, with the court's only American judge, Thomas Buergenthal, siding with Israel. The ruling, which was requested by the U.N. General Assembly, is called an "advisory opinion" and is non-binding.
But the International Court's opinions do carry moral and political weight, and past decisions, such as its 1971 ruling against South Africa's occupation of Namibia, have been used to pressure governments in the court of public opinion.
The White House dismissed the ruling, saying it did not think it was the right venue for addressing the issue.
"We do not believe that that's the appropriate forum to resolve what is a political issue. This is an issue that should be resolved through the process that has been put in place," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said aboard Air Force One as President Bush was en route to a campaign tour in Pennsylvania.
Palestinian President Yasser Arafat called the ruling a victory for his people, the Reuters news service reported. "This is an excellent decision. We thank the court in The Hague," Arafat told reporters after the U.N. body's chief judge began reading out the ruling. "This is a victory for the Palestinian people and for all the free peoples of the world."
"The international high court decided clearly today that this racist wall is illegal to the root and Israel should stop building it and take down what has already been built of this wall. We welcome this decision," Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said.
Israeli officials defended the wall during a press conference while the decision was being read.
"The International Court in The Hague has no authority to deal with disputes between Israel and the Palestinians," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Jonathan Peled said.
Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, told news services that "after all the rancor dies, this resolution will find its place in the garbage can of history. The court has made an unjust ruling denying Israel its right of self-defense."
Israeli government officials have argued that the fence is necessary to prevent Palestinian suicide bombers from infiltrating Israel from the West Bank, and they point to the dramatic drop in suicide attacks over the last eighteen months, since the wall has been under construction. Sharon has also called it a temporary solution to ongoing Palestinian attacks against Israel.
But Palestinians have denounced the construction of the fence, which cuts deep into West Bank territory to encompass Jewish settlements, as a stealth attempt by Israel to grab more Palestinian land. They say its construction is hurting attempts to find a negotiated solution to the long-running Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Palestinians said if the only Israeli interest was security, they could have built the wall along the so-called Green Line, the internationally accepted border before the 1967 Middle East war.
The 425-mile long wall is actually a series of barbed wire and electronic fences, ditches, and in some places huge concrete slabs. About 120 miles of it has been built so far. While Israelis prefer to call it a security fence or barrier, Palestinians have called it an apartheid wall meant to keep the two peoples forever separated.
Last week, Israel's own Supreme Court ruled that while Israel had legitimate security needs that allowed the construction of the wall, the government had to reroute portions that were causing undo hardships to Palestinians, cutting them off from their farmland, their schools and their hospitals. That decision pertained to only one small section of the wall, north of Jerusalem. But it established a principle that Israeli security needs must be balanced against the suffering caused to the Palestinians in building the barrier.
The International Court in The Hague went even further than the Israeli High Court, saying it was "not convinced that the specific course Israel has chosen for the wall was necessary to attain its security objectives."
"The Court considers that the construction of the wall and its associate regime creates a 'fait accompli' on the ground that could well become permanent, in which case, and notwithstanding the formal characterization by Israel, it would be tantamount to de facto annexation," the U.N. court said.
"That construction, along with measures previously taken, thus severely impeded the exercise by the Palestinian people of its right to self-determination," the court said in a ruling on the legality of the barrier.
Israeli officials, fearing exactly such an international rebuke, attempted to discredit the court even before the ruling became known. Justice Minister Yosef Lapid told Army Radio that The Hague court consisted of judges "from the European Union who are not suspected of being particularly disposed towards Israel."
The court's decision will now go to the U.N. General Assembly, where Palestinian and Arab diplomats will likely press for a resolution ordering Israel to comply with the ruling or face international sanctions. This was the route taken by the 1971 ruling against apartheid South Africa over its occupation of Namibia, fueling the drive for sanctions.
The issue could end up before the Security Council, where Israel is hoping the United States will use its veto to forestall any attempt to impose sanctions.
Barbash reported from Washington.