Israelis, Palestinians plot next moves on barrier issue

The International Court of Justice ruled Friday that the wall violates international law.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Where Palestinians see victory achieved, Israelis see violence overlooked.

The decision by the UN's top legal body to declare illegal the wall Israel is building throughout the West Bank is still reverberating. Palestinians are feeling vindicated and are growing optimistic about having it altered, if not taken down. Israelis are more convinced that the world is indifferent to their security concerns, and Sunday were reminded of why the government decided to erect a wall: A Palestinian bomb killed a young woman and injured more than 40 people at a bus stop in Tel Aviv.

Friday, the International Court of Justice in The Hague declared that the 370-mile wall, about a quarter of which has been built, violates international law and should be dismantled. The court said Israel should also compensate Palestinians for damages incurred during the wall's construction. The ICJ's nonbinding ruling - harsher than Israeli officials expected - pushes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict off the back burner and to the fore.

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Palestinian leaders say they will bring the ICJ's ruling to the UN General Assembly. The issue could then be sent to the Security Council, which can impose sanctions. But there are strong indications the US would use its veto to stop any attempt at sanctions, and Palestinian officials say they are taking into account US election-year politics before trying to use the ruling in a way that would appear as if the world were "ganging up" on Israel.

"The leadership decided that first we should go to legal experts to study carefully," says Ghassan Khatib, the Palestinian Authority minister of labor. "One view discussed ... is that we should be a little bit careful. If there is a high chance of a veto ... maybe we need to wait before taking it to the Security Council."

Still, the wall battle comes as many Americans have grown increasingly concerned about the world's image of US foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East. Strained ties with European allies could become further complicated, Mr. Khatib notes, if the US tries to disregard the ruling entirely. "It would be very difficult for any American government to veto a resolution that is based on the legal view of the UN's high court of justice," he says. "It will be very embarrassing."

Locally, the conflict over the wall is being fought almost daily in small demonstrations along the construction route, as well as in Israel's courts. Israeli officials said the only relevant ruling came two weeks ago, when its Supreme Court ruled that the military would have to move a part of the fence to avoid Palestinian land confiscations. The court also recognized the need for the wall to combat attacks on Israelis, which have dropped significantly since the wall started going up last year.

The UN court, in contrast, did not make significant reference to the bloodshed in Israel since the start of the intifada in 2000, leaving many Israelis feeling resentful. Mr. Sharon went as far as declaring that Sunday's bombing was carried out "under the auspices of the ruling."

Israeli officials will try to shore up support for their viewpoint this week in New York. "We are in touch with our European and American friends, to make sure the Palestinians don't take the whole UN General Assembly hostage for their political gain," says Jonathan Peled, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman. "The most worrying this is that it undermines the road map. What we're saying is that the solution lies here on the ground, in places like Gaza and Ramallah."

Some Israeli editorials warned the court's ruling left Israel slipping toward pariah status globally. One way for Israel to make its case that it is trying to extricate itself from the occupied territories, say analysts here, is for Mr. Sharon to move ahead on the disengagement plan. It calls for a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, including the dismantling of settlements there and of a few small settlements in the West Bank.

The difficulty, says Tel Aviv University geographer Elisha Efrat, is that the wall serves a political as well as a security purpose. "Even if a country is allowed to build a fence to defend itself from attack ... it can't be done after 37 years of contest over a piece of land," says Mr. Efrat. "So if you do build it, then it is a political wall.... It becomes a political wall if you change the territory of your country and the country next to you."

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