Israel defiant in wake of UN vote against barrier

A 144 to 4 approval of the measure Tuesday signals widespread condemnation of the wall.

Bulldozers at work on Israel's security barrier ground their way over the Jerusalem hills Wednesday, a loud and dusty show of defiance against a UN vote condemning the barrier's construction.

"The fence will continue being built and we will go on taking care of the security of Israel's citizens," vowed Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Israeli radio Wednesday morning.

The UN General Assembly resolution Tuesday demanded that Israel dismantle parts of the barrier, meant to stop Palestinian suicide bombers from entering Israel. The UN doesn't object to the barrier's security role, but to its route, charging that its incisions into the West Bank could stymie a future peace settlement.

The international condemnation highlights Israel's diplomatic isolation, the UN's limited ability to shape the situation here, and the influence of the US, which voted against resolution. The UN vote also underscores Israel's steely determination to raise the barrier, despite the financial cost to Israelis and the human cost to Palestinians.

"The UN vote won't have much bearing on what Israel will do," says Shmuel Bar, a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy in Herzilya. He describes the barrier as "one of the very few things that Israel is in consensus about."

He adds, "There's a very deep urge in the Israeli body politic to divorce ourselves from the Palestinians, and the fence is the palpable expression of this. It is perceived as such an essential component for public security that no government could stop it."

The General Assembly resolution is not legally binding, but it is seen as a barometer of international opinion. By that measure, the 144 to 4 vote signals widespread displeasure with Israel. The US and Israel were joined by the Marshall Islands and Micronesia in voting against the measure; 12 countries abstained.

The resolution condemned Palestinian suicide bombing, the recent attack on American security personnel in Gaza, and Israel's extrajudicial killings of Palestinian militants.

Primarily, though, the General Assembly called on Israel to "stop and reverse" building the barrier on Palestinian land and particularly in and around East Jerusalem, calling it a "contradiction to international law."

Under the Geneva Convention, international law does allow an occupying power to take measures to protect itself and its troops, but these measures have to strike a balance between security and the humanitarian cost to the occupied people.

The barrier is rising at immense cost to the Palestinians, separating them from hospitals, schools, public services, and agricultural fields that provide their livelihood. The Israeli human rights group B'tselem estimates that already the barrier directly affects some 210,000 Palestinians.

Israeli officials, who describe the West Bank and Gaza as "disputed" and not "occupied" territories, reject the criticism as swiftly as they do the UN resolution. "The General Assembly is not a place to deal with the legality of issues; it has no standing for that," says Dore Gold, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He acknowledges that the resolution condemns suicide bombings, but says it falls short by not blaming the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its leader, Yasser Arafat.

"The resolution was fundamentally flawed in criticizing Israel's security fence without stopping to ask why a fence is needed," Mr. Gold says. The barrier, which is expected to extend 210 miles, costs $4 million per mile.

The US used the same argument last week when it vetoed another motion against the barrier in the UN Security Council, where resolutions carry the weight of international law.

Analysts here widely agree that Israel's frosty relations with Europeans, who submitted the resolution, and its often-hostile exchanges with the UN, mean those two bodies have little sway over Israel. "The Israeli position vis a vis the UN has been crystallized over many years, and it's quite negative, and this is seen as just another UN decision," says Ephraim Kam, deputy director of Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv.

In contrast, these analysts agree the US is the only body able to influence Israel. Though the US has made clear it has reservations about the barrier, few analysts expect it to act on them.

"The US simply isn't prepared to spend the political capital needed to confront Israel" in an election year, says Michael Tarazi, a legal adviser to the PA.

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